The Guardian’s announcement today that it will be winding down its experiment in local journalism has produced considerable reaction from those cities in which the paper appointed a ‘beat blogger’ to cover local news – Cardiff, Edinburgh and Leeds. As a resident of the latter, http://www.guardian.co.uk/leeds has become an essential local information and discussion service and has been the focus for a number of campaigns, particularly around the state of the city’s public transport, the ever expanding cultural conversation that is helping to redefine what it is to be a Loiner, and the festivals and events that celebrate not just our city, but its streets, neighbourhoods and compass points.
It’s sometimes hard to get useful news in Leeds. The other day my wife and I took a trip out to the coast via my house in Yeadon. We headed up to Harrogate Road around the back of the airport and found that traffic was building up the other way, suggesting that something was up near the airport entrance. We diverted around East Carlton, getting frustrated by people who didn’t expect to find a small farming hamlet next to an international airport, and joined the road again at the traffic lights at Old Otley Road. There was a major incident ongoing, with at several fire and ambulance units in residence, and we made a note to find out what was going on when we got home. That night I searched the local news services and found nothing. I didn’t find out what had happened until Monday afternoon, and that from a local newspaper website that is the merger of the local newspapers in Aireborough, Otley and Ilkley. Perhaps it wasn’t a major incident, but it was still news to those drivers who found themselves negotiating unknown country in the badlands of the Wharfe Valley.
This is typical of the state of online news in Leeds today. On weekends there is nothing except the football results on the Yorkshire (Evening) Post websites or the BBC Leeds site. There are maybe half a dozen stories a day during the week. If the printed version of the Yorkshire Post and Evening Post were better it would be forgiveable, but in this new media age, we have neither good old media or new. Guardian Leeds was a brave experiment by the paper that has worked for local readers, but presumably doesn’t fitted in with management’s current plans.
Matt Edgar has suggested raising the finance to maintain the service through Pledgebank but I don’t think that’s what the Guardian has in mind. It does at least accept that the paper is a business and that the service would have to be paid for in some way.
In my day job I work with a US website called The Examiner. It’s a major local news source in cities across America, sourcing its information from local ‘Examiners’ who cover beats and topics in their towns. The local press is in greater decline in the US than here, with the big city and regional dailies just about surviving, but the local press becoming thin advertising sheets that at best are satellites of their nearby metropolitan editions and at worst are pages of houses, used cars and coupons with a thin shell of local affairs. Sound familiar?
So the web, as Guardian Leeds has proved, can be a good source of local news. The success of the Examiner in the US suggests that it can be crowd sourced (it does pay, but based on impressions and ad revenue so I can’t imagine it makes a living for many Examiners). Leeds and West Yorkshire has an enthusiastic and ever growing presence on Twitter who report and make the news. There are ventures like Leeds TV who are reporting using video, entertainment sites, community projects across the city and many other sources which, if pulled together, could create the news source that the city deserves. It would be as big as it needed to be: the cost of entry to the web is far less than it used to be: start with no illusions about the fortunes available (small or none) but with the enthusiasm available (tons) it could be those that miss Guardian Leeds the most that create the alternative.