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The hyperlocal landgrab

Who will come out on top in the coming battle between new and old media over hyperlocal news?

If the rhetoric is to be believed, hyperlocalism is the most promising trend the digital age has brought journalism. There are now hundreds of websites around the country, bringing local communities unpredented levels of news gathered by newly-empowered citizen journalists. With their scrutiny of the local and celebration of the particular, it's tempting to see hyperlocals as a new form of democratic journalism driven by a synergy between readers and writers.

For media-watchers looking for an answer to journalism's money troubles, hyperlocalism may provide the beginnings of some reasons to be cheerful. It shows, at least, that there is still an appetite for local news, prompting the hope that where there is demand, money must follow.

But a bit dig deeper, and a different story emerges. Most hyperlocals are run by volunteers and activists - a feature which, according to evangelists like William Perrin and Networked Neighbourhoods, is part of their beauty. But it's not a recipe for sustainability. The husband-and-wife-team behind the award-winning Ventnor Blog admit to "constantly wondering how they're living" despite running a site that's become central to life on the Isle of Wight since it started five years ago.

Meanwhile, Tony Wallely, the founder of Pits n Pots, the hyperlocal known for its hard-hitting coverage of Stoke on Trent, says the site's development has run aground on the problem of monetisation. Even possible counter-example start-up the Preston blog, which has been notably successful in securing grant funding from NESTA, is hardly a model that could be widely replicated by others.

The common thread running through all these cases suggests an unpalatable possibility: it could it be that what we're seeing is a movement with a limited life-span rather than the emergence of a new form of grassroots journalism.

The developing relationship between the grassroots hyperlocals and their bigger counterparts provides an indication of the direction things could take. Last summer, Trinity Mirror announced the launch of a network of hyperlocals working "in partnership" with established sites like the Lichfield blog. In exchange for allowing Trinity Mirror sites to feature their material on their sites, contributing hyperlocals get to showcase their work and be properly credited.

The deal is symptomatic of the way the big media organisations are responding to the hyperlocal conundrum, reluctant to let such a promising new media trend pass them by, yet unwilling to invest much in something that isn't profitable. Northcliffe, Trinity Mirror and the Guardian all have modest hyperlocal operations, and it's likely to be a while before they get any return for their investment. "It's going to take a long time. Whether they'll have the patience, I don't know," says Sean Kelly, founder-director of NeighbourNet, the UK's only fully commerical hyperlocal operation.

It's hard, with the row about the Huffington Post profiting out of unpaid bloggers and aggregated content rumbling on, not to see an element of parasitism in the big media companies' relationship with community-based hyperlocals. Neither Trinity Mirror nor Guardian Local, which shares a similar model, are thieving copy, as publishers have to sign up for the deal. (There are examples of outright theft in hyperlocal land: earlier this year had to take down content it had posted without permission, while PitsnPots' Wallely claims his stories are frequently used, without attribution, by mainstream media organisations.) It's possible, further down the line, to see weary community publishers selling to big players seeking aggregation.

While everyone eagerly awaits hyperlocalism's moment at the bank, it's worth keeping an eye on the States, which is ahead of the UK in the new-models-for-journalism-game. This week it emerged that Twitter co-founder Biz Stone is to join Huffington Post to develop a platform for community journalism, fuelling suspicions of a new media strategy based on free content now, profit later. The chief exec of local news aggregator Topix recently observed that - with a resurgence in local advertising now taking digital form - a land-grab is underway in hyperlocal media. So - to transplant the western analogy here - if the big media companies are the cowboys and the grassroots hyperlocals the Indians, what will happen when the landgrab comes here?

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide