What is local news? Can it exist as a form of media?
Two weeks ago I had just returned home from football training with one of my sons. As I got out of the car I heard some distant thunder-like rumbling. But the rumble kept repeating itself in a very regular way. It was therefore clearly not a natural phenomenon. It was something that was very big or explosive (a bit worrying) but also very distance and not seeming to get closer (more reassuring).
So I wanted to find out what was going on. Did I listen to the local radio station? Did I look at the website of the local newspaper? Of course not. I simply punched #Norfolk #Suffolk #boom into a Twitter search. Hey presto – I found someone else with the same question and shortly we were joined by another with the answer – which was some uncommonly noisy military exercises taking place at the army’s Stanford Training Area (Stanta), some 20 miles way in Thetford Forest.
Now the issue here is not whether the local radio station or newspaper could or should have been giving me this information. Or that their inability to do so therefore represented a unfulfilled need or opportunity for a more (hyper) local variant of their kind to fill this supposed ‘gap in the market’. Radio and newspapers are constrained, and defined by, (and named after) the medium within which they have to operate (radio, newsprint). The expense of using this medium sets a floor, in terms of required audience, below which they cannot go. But this constraint also applies to the type of content these forms of media produce – which is something we tend to forget. We have lived in a world where information is married to distribution (content to media) and where distribution wears the trousers (i.e. defines what content can live within it).
The social digital revolution is all about the separation of information from distribution – the removal of the constraint upon content which expensive distribution channels once imposed. But the removal of this distribution constraint has not, as many assume, made it possible for the content form (as distinct from distribution form) that is local media to break through the glass floor and now operate at the hyper local level. At this level (or within the social digital space) the concept of content ceases to have any meaning – because content is a creation of the world of channel (distribution). It requires containment in order to be content.
What happens at the hyper local level (or in the hyper-relevant social digital space more generally) is that the form of content we call news stops being a finished product (i.e. content) and becomes a raw material. It becomes a component within a process that will allow individuals to define their own news. In the example I have highlighted it has become a conversation – which is a form of process. And when you aggregate conversations, what you end up with is a community. And the question you also have to ask is that, when you remove the glass floor, do you find you have also removed a glass ceiling – such that process and community based ‘news’ migrates upwards and eats even more of the space currently occupied by traditional news content. Yes is probably the answer.
The future is therefore pretty bleak for what we currently see understand as local news. It cannot make itself more local because hyper-local news can never exist, or be aggregated within, the distribution form we associate with media. And the hyper-local, or hyper-relevant, processes associated with information sharing in the social digital space (the world of the individual, rather than the world of the audience) are likely to migrate upwards and eat even more of its, already relatively impoverished, lunch.