Hyperlocal media and engagement with political parties: what’s been your experience?

One of my abiding memories of the 1997 General Election involves bumping into a candidate from one of the major parties in a beer cellar. The candidate was supposed to have been on air at the time, participating in a live hustings for the small local radio station I was working for.

During a short conversation with them it quickly became clear that they felt an informal meet and greet with a bunch of bemused students was a better use of their time.

That was until I gently nudged him in the direction of the nearest cab…

A decade and a half later I hoped this sort of incident was a thing of the past. But is that the case?

Recent examples from Brixton Blog and Bugle, Sutton Coldfield Local, WV11Kings Cross EnvironmentWolves on Wheels, Birmingham Eastside and others suggest some politicians are failing to engage with local media outlets.

This clearly represents a missed opportunity. With membership of political parties and election turnout at a low a new tier of media offers the opportunity for politicians of all political persuasions to engage with their potential constituents as never before.

Evidence points to hyperlocal political coverage

And the evidence suggests that publishers are looking to cover political and community content, so candidates should be pushing at an open door.

Research presented last year by Dr Andy Williams at Cardiff University’s Community Journalism Conference 2013, showed that across 313 active websites, this type of content made up almost a quarter of stories being published.

And even without this empirical base, a cursory glance at a few community websites quickly shows the level of focus that many of them have on community – and local political – issues.

So why is there this disconnect?

Technology has made it easier than ever to target specific communities, whether communities of interest or from a specific locale.

The emergence of hyperlocal websites and community radio stations – coupled with social networks, blogs and other media channels – should mean that concerns about democratic deficits have become redundant.

Yet that is clearly not the case.

Reporter apathy or candidate apathy?

Media proliferation may mean that messages are being spread too thinly. It could be that political parties prefer to focus their energies on mainstream media and their own social channels; rather than those which are more grass-roots led.

It might also be that apathetic candidates were less visible in news outlets which cover multiple wards and consitutencies and took a more party-based approach. “We’ve never seen [the local paper] approach individual candidates to profile” noted WV11.

Or perhaps I am doing politicians and political parties a disservice; and they don’t get asked to contribute as much as we might think.

Williams’ research found that “only around half of the sample featured sources in their articles at all [a finding which] could have implications for: transparency, plurality, and the quality of local public debate,”  particularly given the fact that only around 3 per cent of the posts sampled “contained any kind of disagreement”.

What’s not clear is whether publishers are seeking this input, and just not getting a response, or if this is a conscious editorial decision.

Given that many sites are run by small numbers of volunteers, there may not be enough hours in the day to chase up this sort of input.

Either way, given the sizeable – and engaged – audience enjoyed by many hyperlocal outlets, it is disappointing to find that some political parties appear to be eschewing these routes into the community.

What’s been your experience of this?

Have you sought – and failed – to get input from politicians and local political parties? Have you found differences when dealing with local, national and European representatives? Have attitudes changed over time?

Please contribute your comments and examples below. It would be great to hear your perspectives on this.


6 thoughts on “Hyperlocal media and engagement with political parties: what’s been your experience?

  1. William Perrin

    In kings cross the labour counvil candidate (incumbent very likely to win) has had a long engagement with the blog as a commenter. He submitted a piece carefully targeted on the ward. The lib dems submitted a weak generic flyer, others nothing. The labour candidate then took to twitter calling out his competitors for a poor showing, which amused me.

  2. baynesmedia

    The site I run (www.lovewapping.org) is in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and despite making no attempt whatsoever to engage with any politicians it has generated a police investigation into alleged canvassing irregularities, was the subject of a heated Council meeting, is regularly attacked by both established local politicians and their twitter trolls and even the mention of ‘Love Wapping’ results in vile personal abuse by some political activists.

    But back to the question. I made no attempt to actively engage with political parties during the local elections simply because I don’t have the time. And the political story literally knocked on my door.

    In what passes for normal times in Tower Hamlets the main engagement with local politicians is typically talking to them about local issues but more as resident than hypermedia person. These issues might be general such as better lighting in the local woods or specific problems a particular resident might have. A little coverage on the site and putting someone in touch with a local councillor can work wonders.

    A key reason why I have felt no need to actively engage with politicians is that the world of Tower Hamlets politics is covered in detail by the Trial by Jeory blog (http://trialbyjeory.wordpress.com/). I see no point in attempting to cover something that Ted Jeory, the blog author, does so incredibly well. Ted also happens to be Digital News Director for Express Newspapers (http://www.express.co.uk/). If a big political issue is of concern to Wapping Ted will be covering it already.

    Love Wapping does however actively engage with *politics* as opposed to political *parties*. Coverage of ‘Greenbankgate’ the alleged canvassing irregularities has been running since November 2013 (http://bit.ly/1e7Hv0n) and will run until its conclusion. The coverage of alleged canvassing irregularities and its twists and turns has helped to highlight the issue across the borough.

    I have also used my ‘day job’ skills as a data journalist and information designer to conduct a long term investigation into payments to suppliers by Tower Hamlets Council using Open Data. This was a direct response to being verbally attacked by members of the current administration in Council. They have their platform, I have mine.

    And I would like to think using interactive techniques such as Sankey Diagrams to explain the flow of funding inside our Council (http://bit.ly/1kTbJHR) is of the same standard of data visualisation as any other online publication. Just takes longer to do as there is only one of me.

  3. West Hampstead (@WHampstead)

    I covered the local elections extensively across four wards in Camden on West Hampstead Life. As a well established hyperlocal, I didn’t have too many problems engaging local candidates, many of whom already know me. The Greens were the least engaged, which seemed like a missed opportunity given it’s free advertising for them and they have less money than the three big parties. The Conservatives didn’t bother in the ward where they were no-hopers, but otherwise we had good engagement across all parties.

    I held a hustings for two of the wards, about 100-120 residents turned up as well as party hangers on. 21 of the 26 candidates turned up – we missed four greens and a Labour candidate who couldn’t make it rather than ignored it. We tried to livestream the event, but sadly the venue’s Wifi let us down after just 20 minutes. We did audio record it all though and posted a set of videos on YT broken down into bitesize chunks – I was a bit disappointed with the relatively low number of views these got (esp. relative to the time it took me to put them together – a new skill for me), but still worth doing I think.

    Camden is also forward thinking enough to allow me to attend the count – as it did back in 2010 – which helps cement my position as a knowledgeable commentator. I’m the only non mainstream media outlet they give accreditation to.

    Overall, my coverage was pretty well read, though engagement picked up far more in the immediate few days beforehand; it was hard to get much excitement even two weeks out but pulling all the content together was time consuming so starting early made sense.

  4. baynesmedia

    Interesting to read about hustings, just the sort of thing hyperlocals should do. In Wapping we never considered it as we had been reliably told that having a hustings with more than one political party present was a recipe for disaster (Tower Hamlets, remember?).

    I did attend the first Mayoral and ward count which was as baffling as reports have suggested. Fortunately I did not even attempt to attend the rest of the count as it went on for a total of five days. I don’t think me being there in a hyperlocal capacity was of any real direct benefit to the community – apart from being an eyewitness to the confusion – but there are various data analysis and visualisation projects I am working on which might be useful.

    I do think hyperlocal sites could play a much bigger role in local elections in future. Many residents were turning to the site for basic information about secondary preference voting (most people were oblivious to it) and information as the count dragged on. And on. And on..

  5. Pingback: Are you a hyperlocal covering #GE2015? | Online Journalism Blog

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