Thursday, 6 September 2007

Can social media save local media?

Via Cultural Snow I recently came across an inspiring story from the BBC in India.

The BBC reports that Gaurishankar Rajak, a barely-educated washerman, has dedicated the last 21 years to publishing a handwritten local newspaper, Din Dalit, exposing corruption and discrimination in his home town of Dumka.

Rajak decided to create Din Dalit after trying in vain to interest his local media in covering government discrimination against the poor. As well as highlighting local issues and providing a focal point for public debate, Din Dalit has made a concrete difference by helping at least one Dumka resident to obtain social security payments, according to the BBC's article.

As Rajak has discovered, Din Dalit meets a need for dedicated community reporting that should be fulfilled by established local news media organisations – not just in India, but also in the US and the UK.

Yet here and elsewhere, local news media are in crisis. Advertisers are preferring to spend their money with Google or advertise for free on sites like Craigslist. Falling circulations and rising running costs are forcing local papers to scale down or amalgamate, so that 'hyperlocal' issues are no longer featured. And professional journalists often have an eye on more prestigious outlets, leaving local reporting to rookies, no-hopers or retirees.

The impact may be profound: without their own media, neighbourhoods can lose their identity and feeling of 'togetherness', contributing to a deterioration of the shared sense of place and belonging that holds communities together.

Could amateurs step into this breach, as Rajak has done? The growing use of social media like blogging and online social networking makes amateur community reporting a very viable proposition. Could bloggers become hyperlocal reporters? And could local news media collaborate with those bloggers to reinvigorate hyperlocal coverage?

Or perhaps the recent successful Facebook campaign against HSBC's overdraft fees could be replicated for hyperlocal community issues, like this out-of-order parking meter I photographed in a quiet Hammersmith street last weekend. A Facebook group of annoyed local residents could bring the issue to a wider and more influential audience than an angry note stuck on the source of the irritation:

Media commentator Jeff Jarvis is convinced that if local media start partnering with bloggers, the decline in local reporting can be halted and even reversed. Author Steven Johnson, meanwhile, has created Outside In, a website that aggregates blog posts about specific postcodes, drawing individual bloggers together to form ad-hoc local reporting communities.

And with Facebook proving to be a hugely fertile forum for single-issue groups and campaigns that – for the moment at least – are capable of garnering significant mainstream media attention, the internet may yet turn out to be the saviour of the local community, rather than its downfall.

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