This article is by Carina Tenor, Polis Research Fellow in the Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics. 

One of the great hopes of the digital news transformation was that a grass-roots local news media might spring up to help mitigate the decline of professional local journalism. Yet, successful small independent local online news providers are still the exception not the rule. So it’s a good time to ask: what has the sector matured into – and what more realistic hopes and ambitions can be tied to these often precarious and struggling hyperlocal news providers?

When I visited the Future of Journalism conference in Cardiff in September, there were a couple of sessions about hyperlocals and ‘journalism in the margins’. But, it was clear, the big thing now is the question of fake news, and the effects on society. But the problem in many local areas is not fake news, it is no news at all.

Being a local journalist working in the field for more than 20 years in Sweden, I have noticed that local journalism never quite had the ‘it’ factor. At my regional newspaper, we took the matter in our own hands, starting a national conference for local journalists in 2005 (called Nära, which means ‘Close’ in Swedish). For more than 10 years we gathered journalists who were working outside the main newsrooms, invited lecturers, shared experiences and also instituted a price for best piece of local journalism. A lot of those colleagues we met then have now changed professions ­– yes, due to the cutbacks we see among newspapers all over the world.

But recently, I have felt an increasing interest for local news. Of course, local audiences have always been interested in local news – but now it was a concern for politicians, academics and so on. The main reason is of course negative: people starting to notice the effects of newspapers’ failing business model. Things taken for granted are seldom valued, and that was perhaps the case for local print journalism.

Another sign of rising interest was the research project Hyperlocal publishing, launched in 2015, which led to a two year part-time employment as a project researcher at Södertörn University. In the project, myself, Gunnar Nygren and Sara Leckner studied the changing local media landscape from different angles, and also did the first mapping of the hyperlocals in Sweden. Our colleagues in Finland than did the same, and we shared our results the Nordic conference Nordmedia in September 2017.

So now I am taking my interest and my knowledge from the Nordic region to the UK and LSE as a visiting fellow, granted the Polis/Journalistfonden Fellowship . In the UK, I would say that the local news landscape has undergone even more changes than in the Nordic countries, and that the (new) hyperlocal sector has a slightly longer history. That also goes for research and networks connecting hyperlocals, and parties interested in their development.

The importance of local news is more than a passing trend. Or at least should be.

But to put unrealistic hopes on hyperlocals as saviour of local journalism or the hopes of community activism may backfire. People easily lose interest when reality does not live up to expectations. So therefore my question for this visit is: What to expect? In what ways can hyperlocals still be, maybe not the, but a part of, future of journalism?

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Carina Tenor is an online journalist and Research Fellow as part of Polis’ partnership with Journalistfonden.

If you are interested in her research, then you may contact her at C.Tenor@lse.ac.uk.

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