There has been a concerted effort over the last couple of years to encourage local people to get their voices heard and to take control of local issues.
As a result of this burgeoning ‘hyperlocal news‘ movement, more and more blogs and community websites are springing up: people are finding and reporting on local stories that mainstream media wouldn’t be interested in, challenging and engaging with local civic organisations, and motivating their communities by virtue of being relevant.
With this comes a set of new challenges for them: what do they do when faced with the threat of crippling – though often baseless – legal action; how can they get the most meaningful response from their elected representatives; what tools are available for sourcing stories and enabling engagement; etc.
On Saturday I attended Talk About Local’s second unconference, this time held in Leeds. The last one – in Stoke-on-Trent – was full of enthusiastic people wanting to do great things; now people are finding their feet, a solid sense of purpose and determination has set in, and the enthusiasm to share knowledge and experience is as strong as ever.
I joined three discussions during the course of the day: one on finding stories, one on covering the General Election and one on legal issues.
[What follows is a lightly edited version of posts from my personal blog.]
A brainstorm of the room (and subsequent discussion) came up with an abundance of ideas for finding local stories:
- Speak to people on the streets, in the community, cafes, pubs etc;
- Cycle around the area;
- Read up on local history, for example using:
- the Old Bailey proceedings from 1674 to 1913, online and searchable (free);
- the British library’s digitised, searchable archive of 19th century newspapers (£10 subscription);
- Google Books (free);
- Attend council meetings (the agendas might be boring but the meetings can be lively);
- Read the minutes of council meetings;
- Attend other local meetings (eg NHS, Police and Fire authority meetings);
- Attend inquests;
- Read Freedom of Information requests;
- Read planning applications;
- Read news feeds (eg RSS feeds via Google Reader);
- Scan community websites;
- Subscribe to email forums, discussion groups etc;
- Use Wikisplash, a new guide for helping journalists find UK stories;
- Read the births, marriages and deaths columns of local papers;
- Request press releases from local organisations;
- Attend Family Courts (it’s hard to find out what’s on beforehand, but courtserve.net might help);
- Walk a dog.
It was also mentioned that the government is apparently looking to publish outcomes of magistrates’ court cases online in the future, which would be very useful to local bloggers.
The baton then passed to Tom Steinberg, who went into a bit more detail about how online tools can support the sourcing of news, and how to filter out stuff that interests you from the overwhelming amount of information available.
- Google Alerts will send you email or RSS updates of anything you ask it
- be creative when you’re putting in search terms
- FixMyStreet alerts for local problems.
- WhatDoTheyKnow lets you subscribe to alerts for when someone asks a Freedom of Information request of your council. (Even though the council may not answer, the more people subscribe the less easy it is for the issue to be ignored.)
- TheyWorkForYou feeds: rich data about the work of individual MPs.
- PlanningAlerts notifies you of local planning applications (although it’s currently limited to what it can do with postcodes due to action by Royal Mail).
- Flickr enables people to geotag photos, which means you can subscribe to a feed letting you know of new ones near to you.
For the more technically minded, most of the services listed above make it easy to develop your own tools for re-using their data.
Freedom of Information requests
- Be faultlessly polite in all your correspondence. The people reading your correspondence are rarely those responsible for the information you seek;
- If you don’t get a response from an organisation, follow through the sanctioning process with the Information Commissioner. Make it clear that you are doing so and that you know what is expected of the organisation legally;
- Be careful not to get labelled as ‘vexatious’. Although there is no hard and fast line about how you become labelled as ‘vexatious’, don’t give anyone the chance do so: once they’ve blacklisted you they will never reply to you again. So be minimalist in your approach.
We heard that whereas it used to be the case (in broadcast journalism at least) that each political party had to be given exactly the same coverage, that is no longer the case. If a party has no history of election success, you are apparently within your rights not to cover them. Just make sure to list all the candidates who are standing.
Independent reporters should have no extra restrictions for reporting on polling day, although it might be worth trying to get press accreditation.
‘Declaration of Financial Interest’: guideline is apparently now for MPs to make that public, so you can ask if they will give you the same statement that they give to others: they might well see it as in their interest to, particularly in light of the MPs’ expenses scandal.
Some election sites
- TheStraightChoice: uploaded election leaflets
- Get your readers to upload theirs
- Show them interesting stuff that happened as a result;
- ElectionChampion: a game to find the election billboards that are springing up around the country;
- Democracy Club: ‘working to build the definitive guide to where all candidates stand on major issues, nationwide’;
- The goal is that after the election what the winners said will be compared with their voting record over the next five years.
Problems faced by people in the room had included: unfounded but effective demands to have comments removed from websites; moral dilemmas about balancing legal rights to publish with social implications for individuals; the threat of crippling court fees.
Some tips from the room:
- Make interaction/commenting guidelines clearer;
- Always check your story with more than one source;
- Consider removing first-post moderation: if you moderate comments you are legally responsible for their content. Instead add a ‘report this comment’ button and ensure you have a tight take-down policy;
- Ensure you have clear terms and conditions are on your site, and review them regularly.
This post is a report of information gleaned at an event, which I may unintentionally have misunderstood or misrepresented. Please do not presume anything here is accurate: check against a reliable source first.