The rise and rise of community-based news reporting

Following on from my first article – Fake news” or “No news” – the twin threats to democracy –  does local news matter? If your answer is ‘no’, then don’t read on. No! Cancel that thought. You, above all, should read on and here’s why.

Think of the things that impact on your life on a daily basis – housing, planning, council tax, roads,education, health, life and death…. Think of what’s going on around you within ten miles of where you live and ask: “who is responsible for this?

Who would you call to account, to point the finger at, and say: “you are responsible for this and I want answers”? If not you, who?

The standard answers would be that you contact your local councillor and failing that your MP. Some would say that these representatives should proactively attend to our interests and in some places, they do. For example, in Hastings, their Grotbuster programme was set up in 2000 as a response to public concern at the town’s high number of run down and derelict buildings. It worked and some 900 buildings have been transformed and it has been a model for other councils. It has also  helped make Hastings a destination of choice for those fleeing from London.

In sharp contrast, when FHDC’s leader, David Monk, was asked to intervene in response to concerns over one iconic local building, all that resulted was an action for defamation from the building’s owner. Now here’s what local MP Damian Collins has to say about the hottest local story captured in two headlines, staying loyal to the party line:

  • “We remain on track to meet the government stated objective to ensure that by the middle of February, all vulnerable people, and people aged over the age of 70 will have received their vaccine”.

Here are our two hot headlines: KentLive:

And KentOnline:

Both report that “Folkestone has the highest coronavirus death rate in the United Kingdom – but “practical issues mean it will be the last place in Kent to receive the vaccine.

My concern and criticism is, that beyond factual reporting of the statistics, and some reporting of individual concerns, there was no attempt whatsoever to deploy the most powerful words any reporter should have etched on his or own brain and bring to bear on each and every story:

“I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew)

Their names are What and Where and When

And How and Why and Who.”

So, when I see that from January 4th, four local residents a day are dying, and Folkestone has the highest death rate in the country, a quote from unnamed Kent health bosses blaming ‘practical issues’ and another from an NHS spokesman for the Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group saying that “the NHS across Kent and Medway is working hard to establish vaccination services for all areas,” leaves me begging to see some questions asked.

But it gets worse: “The GP-led service in Folkestone was due to start this week but practical issues around preparing the site means this will now be next week.

What practical issues? We have known since November that a roll-out of vaccinations would take place in the new year. The Oaklands Primary Care Network in Hythe was making plans in November and has been vaccinating for several weeks. Why haven’t these questions been asked by reporters for Kentonline and KentLive? They must surely have a little black book of useful numbers.

It’s not a matter of looking for scapegoats, but of a genuine desire to seek out the truth of why something that should have happened, hasn’t happened. Our local press has a public duty to ask these questions, but to quote George Monbiot in the Guardian:

  • “For many years the local press has been one of Britain’s most potent threats to democracy, championing the overdog, misrepresenting democratic choices, defending business, the police and local elites from those who seek to challenge them.”

This was written ten years ago. Boy, did he tell it how it was.

Let’s look at how the Bristol Cable, one of the UK’s leading online, community-owned newspapers manages this topic. Its weekly briefing of January 15th, covered, in one article, ten COVID-19 related topics from slowing local infection rates, NHS hospital issues with pressures on beds and sick staff, local vaccination news, increased local unemployment, COVID-19 scams, all in under 500 words!!! I know far more about Bristol than I do about Folkestone.

Since 2014 it has broken several major stories touching on issues such as Bristol University’s holdings in fossil fuels (now sold), the Council’s concealing of its intention to allow fracking on Bristol Port land, the use of local police of mass surveillance devices and many others. This is what local reporting should be about.

And it started on a shoestring. To set up, produce its first issue, and launch citizen journalism workshops, it raised £3,300 in a crowdfunding campaign, was given £1,500 by Co-operatives UK and £1,600 by Lush, the cosmetics retailer.

It’s organised as a cooperative and has monthly meetings of its ‘members’ (rather than subscribers), who pay anything up to £50 a month to support the venture. Members are invited to contribute to the output through forums on editorial issues and can even sign up to courses on journalism run by the cooperative. 30,000 copies are printed quarterly and given away for free and there’s the website for regular features. To listen its co-editor and co-founder, Alon Aviram on BBC’s Today programme on January 15th, click here.

In Edinburgh, The Ferret follows a similar path, using crowdfunding for particular investigations. In one case, they got more than twice as much as they were asking for, allowing them to fund an investigation into fracking and a second project with the extra money.

In fact, the growth in people-powered reporting and investigative journalism is rattling cages across the lands, challenging the cosy links between traditional local media that George Monbiot wrote about in 2010. To get a sense of how and why this is happening, I quote from the website of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

“The Bureau Local is a people-powered network setting the news agenda and sparking change, from the ground up.

Over the past three years we have set out to make sure news is working for everyone and to do so, we’ve been changing the way it’s done. Whether it is austerity or Brexit, health or education, people across the UK experience inequality in their treatment and how their stories are told, if told at all.

That’s why we focus our journalism on shining a light on the power, decisions and policies that threaten the public interest of all people across the UK.

We have worked together with a network of people across the country, those who want to build a bright future for news, and have co-created an open manifesto for collaborative new.”

There can be no doubt that given the reality described in my last article, the days when one could “put out the newspaper and hope for the best”, to quote the editor of the Manchester Evening News, Rob Irvine, no longer applies.

Throughout the UK, and famously, here in Folkestone, there are now hundreds of new and not-so-new websites, committed to the principle that “news should be independent, community-focused, and should provide a high standard of quality public interest news” to quote the guiding principle behind the Independent Community News Network, run by Centre for Community Journalism, based at Cardiff University.

The traditional newspaper or broadcaster is no longer the gatekeeper for information; it can no longer assume it alone knows what a story is as non-journalists have an equal or stronger influence and opportunity to disseminate their views. You can no longer assume that your audience trusts you or will even pay any attention at all.

So if we care, we can’t, and mustn’t, passively surrender access to the truth by default. Today, the large traditional infrastructure of news isn’t needed: what’s important is that “you’ve got the skills and the quality and you ask the right questions”. If you do, you will secure an audience.

This is a guest post.

The Shepway Vox Team

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2 Comments on The rise and rise of community-based news reporting

  1. Excellent !!!

    if it wasn’t for local reporting then the Dymchurch Parish Council’s ‘leak’ regarding SDC’s secretive attempt for a second go for a Nuclear Dump on Romney Marsh after the local referendum which produced a decisive ‘No’,would never have come to light and subsequently shelved (hopefully still shelved or is it?).

    • Time to challenge the cosy clique that claim to report the news. Not fit to wipe my arse with…… Or anyone elses

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