Does local journalism still need journalists?

Are journalists still vital to local journalism? That was the question implicitly raised by speakers at the Local Heroes conference on May 14th, run by Press Gazette and Kingston University.

Community website guru William Perrin – who describes himself not as a journalist but a community activist – recounted how the website he developed for the King’s Cross area is able to cover issues at a level of detail local papers could never hope to achieve.

He cited other examples such as Parwich.org, a website generated by and for a village of just five hundred residents, where volunteer writers have contributed 3000 posts since the site launched in March 2008.

While the website has a good relationship with the local paper, it wouldn’t cover what was going on in Parwich, he said. ‘How could they achieve the same level of granularity?’

The theme was echoed by James Hatts, who founded hyper-local London SE1, a monthly print publication which covers the areas in and around London’s Borough back in 1998. With both the Southwark News and the South London Press, the area is well-served by local papers but, he said, ‘despite that, there is still a huge seam of stories that don’t see the light of day in these papers’.

Now the stand-alone community website which complements the print publication consistently gets at least 500,000 page views a month.

But Perrin didn’t have much reassurance to offer those seeking a hyper-local model that can generate the finance to support journalists to do journalism.

With no advertising revenue generated by kingscrossenvironment.org, he makes a living training local communities to set up similar sites with funding from Channel 4. The virtues of the model he had developed, he stressed, were its low start-up costs and ability to harness the wealth of volunteer labour among the community.

Later, Hatts told NMJ that he ‘just about’ makes a living from SE1. Half his income comes via Google Adsense, and the other half is generated by the commission local restaurants and bars pay for bookings made through the site, he revealed.

He added that – twelve years on from starting the project with his father – he wouldn’t like to be starting from scratch now, with so much more online competition.

Further questions about the role of journalists were raised by Wanja Oberhof from Berlin, who told an eye-wateringly impressive tale of publishing a pioneering paper personalised to individual readers’ interests.

Hold on tight, reader, here’s the scary bit: Niiu, which is now heading for 5000 subscribers, has No Editorial Staff Whatsoever, relying entirely on software to put together a digest of various print and online sources.

As journalists are all-too keenly aware, the economics of news production bears a close relation to maintaining quality journalism – a point reinforced by industry veterans.

Tony Johnston, director of training at the Press Association, which is launching a subsidised public service reporting scheme, pointed out that standard NCTJ training includes 120 hours of guided learning for law alone: ‘It’s like that for a reason. It’s not an easy task,’ he said. ‘Journalism for me remains a profession.’

His stance was echoed by Camden New Journal editor Eric Gordon, who said there were limits to how much could be contributed by enthusiastic locals. ‘A journalist knows about law, ethics – ought to be testing the material,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t just accept what the residents say.’

But David Parkin, whose regional news service theBusinessDesk.com now employs fifteen journalists, had some encouraging news about his ‘fremium’ model, which offers editorial content free and generates income through advertising, sponsorship and events.

‘We set up as a free model; we’ve made profits as a free model,’ he said.

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