Local media and trust: notes, v1

The local media scene is not the same as the national media in terms of recognition and trust. It does have a similar power structure because it is owned by a small number of wealthy owners. The influences however are different.

In the area of local news, just five companies — Gannett, JPIMedia, Reach Plc (ex-Trinity Mirror), Tindle and Archant — account for 80% of titles (back in 2015, six companies had the same share). Two companies have 46% of all commercial local analogue radio stations and two-thirds of all commercial digital stations. https://www.mediareform.org.uk/media-ownership/who-owns-the-uk-media

The Routledge Companion to Local Media and Journalism provides a useful overview of issues and cases of local media and journalism all around the world.

The following notes are from the introduction.

The first thing they did was look to identify what are the core issues of the subject. This was through searching the https://clarivate.com/webofsciencegroup/solutions/web-of-science-core-collection/

Key terms searched for were: ‘local media’, ‘local journalism’ and ‘local news’,

“40 per cent of publications were about the US, 8.4 per cent
about the UK, 7.4 per cent about Australia and 5 per cent about Canada.” A further 60 countries share the remaining 38 per cent of academic interest.

The search also revealed that the field does not seem to have a ‘home’ in terms of publications.

Of all the journals, Journalism Studies has the highest number of articles: 35, just 2.8 per cent of the publications.

“different forms of local media have been studied with
somewhat different sets of theoretical and conceptual frameworks, as well as different methodological approaches.”

“themes and issues that have been largely overlooked, but are here revealed to be of significant concern. These include the diverse processes that can lead to the formation of local ‘news deserts’; the effectiveness of different subsidy systems; and a reappraisal of issues surrounding professionalism in local journalism.”

“An important implication of the historical fragmentation of the subject area is a lack of consensus on the meaning of key terms, which are often taken for granted or defined only implicitly.”

“the three key terms that have particular significance to the field, and that feature centrally in this volume, are ‘local’, ‘local media’ and ‘community’”

What do we mean by local: “The concept of ‘local’ at its most simple refers to a place where people live their everyday lives. Importantly, in these sorts of place-based definitions, which tend to be the most common, the local has geographical boundaries. For our field of study, however, local is also a mediatised social space, which is characterised by Lefebvre (1991) as a triadic structure depending on interrelationships between perceived space (people’s activities in a landscape), conceived space (or spatial representations) and lived space (imagined through its myths, symbols and ideologies).”

Ali proposes critical regionalism as a theoretical underpinning to study the local, an approach that “forces an interrogation of localism that goes beyond place to include elements of culture, identity, and language” (Ali, 2015, 107).

“the local refer[s] both to the merchandising strategy that sustains a newspaper and the editorial philosophy that defines its mission” (Pauly and Eckert, 2002, cited in Angela
M. Lee, Chapter 40, this volume).

“On the other hand, some audience- and community-focused definitions have conceptualised local as a ‘sense of place’. Under these readings, local media offer
‘geo-social’ identification, placing readers and their locality in the context of the world, where the audience’s connection to the area is influenced by personal experiences (Hess and Waller, 2014 and 2016b)”

“‘local’ is not just a spatial concept, it is a place formed by its social setting.” Notably, US researchers have used the term ‘community newspaper’ since the 1960s to
describe newspapers of towns and cities. Whereas in the UK a distinction is drawn between local and community media, where local media are indicative of professionalised or institutional organisations and community media of a grassroots or alternative media model, often produced by volunteers.”

“new forms of local media led to new terms such as ‘hyperlocal media’ and more recently ‘bottom-up hyperlocal media’ (Jonas De Meulenaere, Cédric Courtois and Koen Ponnet, Chapter 38, this volume).”

“There is a debate in the literature about the extent to which the content of local media is really local, and the extent to which it should be. A number of researchers warn about the declining local content in local media in recent times and the implications of this trend (e.g., Franklin, 2006; and in this volume Rachel Matthews, Chapter 1; Helen Sissons, Chapter 32; Josephine F. Coleman, Chapter 33).”

As Franklin observes, “In the new millennium, local newspapers are local in name only; the town or city emblazoned on the newspaper’s masthead may be one of the few remaining local features of the paper” (cited in Rachel Matthews, Chapter 1, this volume).

local content “became whatever interested the readers, or what was useful to the readers” (Chapter 40, this volume).

Nielsen (2015) sees local media in this regard as keystone media, that are “primary providers of a specific and important kind of information” (Nielsen, 2015, loc. 1138), highlighting their role in political communication and in underpinning democratic systems and processes in local communities and beyond.

“The third key term for the field is ‘community’, which arguably is an ill-defined word much used by politicians, journalists and academics. In the local media field, ‘community’ and ‘local’ are sometimes used synonymously, reflecting the importance of social context in understanding the ‘local’.
The manner in which ‘community’ has been conceptualised has determined the practice of local journalists and local media legislation, regulation and policy formation, as well as the business models on which local journalism draws. A critical element of local
journalists’ construction of their professional identity is as the ‘community champion’. But Rachel Matthews (Chapter 1, this volume) argues that advertising-led business models “constructed the readership as a ‘community’ to be harnessed for commercial ends” in a transactional relationship with the advertiser. Similarly, Aldridge (2003) has argued, with reference to Anderson (1991), that “creating an ‘imagined community’ is seen as a market imperative” by Britain’s local press (2003, 492).

Community has been seen as an object that can be commodified and addressed; but we also see it as “less as object, more as process and practice, as action, activity, purpose.”

Walkerdine and Studdert (2012) describe the latter as “face-to-face being-ness” made up at the micro level by instances of sociality, of communal interaction. ‘Community’ in this sense resists commodification and objectification. A sense in which local journalists and local media see their practice very much as part of those processes of community interaction, rather than primarily observers and reporters of such processes, emerges in Japan’s Town Magazines and the local media’s role in times of crisis (Anthony S. Rausch, Chapter 2; Florian Meissner and Jun Tsukada, Chapter 41, both this volume); India’s networks of staff and freelance journalists, activists and grassroots organisations (Ursula Rao, Chapter 14, this volume); hyper-local developments in the Nordic region and Russia (Jaana Hujanen et al., Chapter 26, this volume); in the neighbourhood Facebook groups emerging in Belgium (Jonas De Meulenaere, Cédric Courtois and Koen Ponnet, Chapter 38, this volume); and the turn towards talanoa processes of discussion and debate in the Pacific (Shailendra Singh, Chapter 45, this volume). Irene Costera Meijer (Chapter 34, this volume) cites a case study of Norwegian local journalists’ construction of professional identity as “community members first and journalists second”.

We argue that there are three key defining features of local media that are universal, regardless of which country or part of the world they are located in:
• geo socio-political context
• relationship with the community
• position in macro media ecosystems

Geo socio-political context

Local and national media vary as much as they are similar “n terms of structure, form, content and audience consumption”; “local media, while clearly influenced by technological advances and economic fluctuations, reflect very closely the particular historical, geographical, social and political contexts out of which they have arisen (Hess and Waller, 2016b).”

“Political and power structures have been particularly significant contextual factors that have influenced the development of local media.”

In reference to the US (CH 13) , C.W. Anderson argues: “To the degree that modern US journalism is concerned with observing and checking the powers of political institutions, then, the role played by local journalism is of vital importance insofar as a great deal of political power is concentrated at the local level”.

“the different chapters show … that policy development is dialogic, as emphasised by Rose N. Kimani (Chapter 10, this volume), [and] that while at certain historical junctures the policy determines the operations in the field, at other times it is the existent context that determines which policies arise.”

Relationship with the community

Another key feature of local media lies in their relationship with their communities.

As Bill Reader and John Hatcher say in the opening sentence of their contribution to this volume (Chapter 20): “Local news media have always been conflicted by their allegiances to two masters: the communities they inform, and the revenue streams that sustain them”.

Rachel Matthews (Chapter 1, this volume) focuses on the revenue stream as the more dominant of the two masters in much of Britain’s mainstream local commercial media.

in this Companion, the relationship with the community is explored in different contexts and from different perspectives, and what is clear is that, across the world, community focus is a, if not the, key function of many local media provisions.

there are contexts in which local media’s commitment to the communities they inform is the dominant master, using Reader and Hatcher’s analogy, and that commitment is expressed in the roles they play in strengthening and supporting those communities and building a sense of belonging.

Local media and journalism are not only about providing news and information, but also binding the community together and encouraging engagement

The above is particularly relevant to my own research as I look to the effect of social media on ‘local political participation’.

Eli Skogerbø (Chapter 4) and Annika Bergström (Chapter 39) in this volume remind us that a number of studies in different parts of the world in different eras found clear links between local media use and citizens’ sense of belonging to a locality (e.g., Merton, 1949; Park, 1929; Elvestad, 2009; Gulyas et al., 2019).

Irene Costera Meijer (Chapter 34, this volume) cites Heider et al.’s (2005) study that found audience expectations in relation to local journalism are closer to ‘good neighbour’ reporting than to ‘watchdog’ reporting, including “caring about your community, highlighting interesting people and groups, understanding local community, and offering solutions” (Heider et al., 2005, 961).

Position in macro media ecosystems

the third defining feature of local media is their relationship with national and international media ecosystems, specifically the extent to and the way in which they are embedded in national and international structures, and the part they play in those.

Particular important dimensions in this relationship are regulatory systems and policies, ownership, technological infrastructures, content and format flow, industry finance
systems and structures, as well as audience practices.

local media policies are often drawn up “in accordance with regional and state interests that mediate them”, rather than responding to the needs and demands of local media and the local communities in which they operate. Mariola Tarrega and Josep Àngel Guimerà (Chapter 8)

With regards to the ownership dimension, Rachel Matthews (Chapter 1, this volume) explains the implications of national media corporations’ ownership of large parts of UK local media in the later part of the twentieth century, resulting in the dominance of a commercial agenda that concentrated on profits and circulation, sidelining newspapers’ traditions and community focus.

in exploring local media, it is important to bear in mind that
their processes and practices, institutions and organisations, form and content are informed both globally, nationally and locally.

four themes emerge as particularly significant:

• sustainability
• subsidies and state interventions
• local news deserts
• professionalism.

Sustainability “is often examined in relation to economic
concerns, changing business models and their impacts.”

Christopher Ali, Damian Radcliffe and Rosalind Donald (Chapter 27, this volume), for example, state that local media and journalism is confronted by a “financial climate that no longer supports advertising-driven news production, a fragmented audience, and multi-media, multi-content environments demanded by both
consumers and investors”.

In relation to Australia, they found:
Legacy media outlets in all four [research] locations have reduced their newsrooms.
This, in turn, has limited their practice of ‘shoe leather’ and ‘journal of record’ reporting, such as reporting courts and local councils. Fewer stories are covered, and a deficit in quantity and quality of reporting follows. Untrained reporters are less confident when dealing with controversial issues, and more easily used by campaigners and institutions. Public relations content and propaganda is often published without independent verification.

“the contributions in the Companion show that fragmented audiences, multi-media, multi-content environments and declining revenues have had, in varying degrees, a global
impact on local media and journalism.”

Florian Meissner and Jun Tsukada (Chapter 41, this volume) write about the concept “of ‘care journalism’ embodied in Japanese local journalists with close-knit local
networks acting in disaster situations as a mouthpiece for those affected.”

Bill Reader and John Hatcher’s argument (Chapter 20, this volume) that legacy local news organisations “which prioritize community service may be the most sustainable, perhaps because citizens reject media for whom ‘community service’ is empty rhetoric and support media for which ‘community
service’ is an observable practice”.

“where strong local journalism is most needed such ventures can be the most difficult to sustain.”

Jonas De Meulenaere, Cédric Courtois and Koen Ponnet (Chapter 38, this volume) found local Facebook groups in the Belgian city of Ghent – contributors of which did not conceive of themselves as journalists – creating something: that functions to some extent in similar ways as journalistic [hyperlocal media] initiatives … contain[ing] a variety of neighborhood-related and community-oriented stories … Through these, a social news stream emerges, which functions as a neighborhood awareness system that subsequently becomes a prominent gateway to neighborhood information and news.”

Subsidies and state interventions

Several nations, such as France, the Nordic countries, Britain and Australia, maintain a publicly funded, public service local media system, predominantly broadcast media, which operates alongside private, commercially funded institutions

In Britain, there have been no direct subsidies to local newspapers and overall support of local media has been less effective and more fragmented than in Scandinavia. Historically, support for the UK’s local newspaper industry has come in the form of reduced local taxes on their premises, exemption from tax on newspaper sales and an obligation for municipal authorities to pay for the regular publication of ‘statutory notices’ such as planning applications and road closures (Baines, 2014).

Phil Ramsey and Philip McDermott (Chapter 43, this volume) note that in response to the decline in the sector, the government introduced a form of subsidy system in 2017 allowing local newspapers to employ ‘local democracy reporters’ paid by the BBC, the publicly funded broadcaster. To its critics, however, the system does not address the wider issues of failing sustainability in the commercial local newspaper sector and is also accused of subsidising corporate profits rather than sustaining public interest news (Greenslade, 2018).

Local news deserts

the ‘crisis in local media and journalism’, while not universal, is affecting some areas more than others. Recently, those most severely affected have been conceptualised as ‘news deserts’ (e.g., Abernathy, 2016;
Stites, 2011).

Consequences, they warn, include less efficient, more costly, unscrutinised local government; deficiencies in citizens’ knowledge and participation in civic life; and individuals and organisations with more partisan agendas filling the vacuums. Other authors in this volume demonstrate that similar processes are taking place in Australia (Margaret Simons and Jason Bosland, Chapter 19; Simons et al., Chapter 36), where journalism of record is being eroded; New Zealand (Scott Downman and Richard Murray, Chapter 25; Helen Sissons, Chapter 32); and the Netherlands (Marco van Kerkhoven, Chapter 24), where major cities such as Almere with 200,000-plus citizens have no local media.

contributions to this volume invite a re-evaluation of the concept of the news desert to embrace the content provided by local news media.

Ilya Kiriya (Chapter 16) speaks of local newspapers’ descending into irrelevance in which people see them “not so much as ‘our paper’ or even ‘their paper’ but ‘what paper?’”.

We have seen above that local media fulfil a purpose in supporting and sustaining
the processes and practices that make up communities by strengthening people’s feelings of
belonging and connection. So rather than conceptualising the lack of local media simply in
terms of ‘news deserts’, approaching this aspect from the perspective of ‘local media gaps’ allows us to consider the loss represented by the depletion of local media ecosystems in a more holistic sense, as a diminution of the opportunities for sociality, of face-to-face encounters, of affective interactions – of ‘community’ itself.

Professionalism

“There is a rich tradition of research into the professionalisation of journalism and journalism
work. Deuze (2005) critiques the manner in which journalists have developed an occupational ideology to make sense of their role and societal value – “how the profession makes sense of itself” – seeing themselves as providing a public service; being objective, fair and trustworthy; working autonomously with a social responsibility and ethical sensibility.”

However, much of this attention has focused on the institutional setting of the newsroom, often neglecting the “places, spaces, practices and people at the margins of this spatially delimited news production universe”
(Wahl-Jorgensen, 2009, 23).

A consequence of these transformations has been the repeated engagement of journalists within the ‘mainstream’ sector in ‘boundary work’, “intensely debating what journalism is and who can be considered to be a ‘real’ journalist” (ibid., 168).

C.W. Anderson (Chapter 13), citing revelations relating to the 2016
US presidential election, raises concerns about state actors disguised on social media as ordinary citizens “hijacking the public discourse for nefarious purposes”, and argues that such factors as fake news and the rise of populism have rekindled debates about trust and normative functions of journalism and journalists.

Resonating with transformations recounted above of local media and journalism from observer to participant in processes and practices of community, several contributors point to emerging understandings of local media and journalism in terms of ‘collaborative practice’.

Lily Canter (Chapter 31, this volume) finds that senior editorial staff tend to use Twitter as a promotional tool on local newspapers in Britain, while individual journalists use it to interact and engage with their audience, blurring the boundaries between the professional and the personal. Tony Harcup (Chapter 46, this volume) finds in the ‘alternative’ local media in Britain media production as ‘active citizenship’, a ‘social function’ media.

Signposts to further research

The field would also benefit from more investigations into questions of power and politics in the digital age in relation to local media and journalism, which is also a call made
by C.W. Anderson (Chapter 13, this volume). For example, what are the implications of fake news at the local level? What is the relationship between local journalism and political populism?

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