Three-tier journalism

There are three tiers of journalism in the UK at the moment – national, regional and hyperlocal – but in all the discussion and excitement over open data, the voices of journalists working at the coal-face in the middle tier tend to be absent. That’s a shame, because regional news offers some fascinating and unique challenges for data journalism and computer assisted reporting.

At one end of the scale there’s national journalism, which covers big issues affecting all regions of the country or stories of national interest. In most media national journalism tends to be biased towards the south in general and London in particular, and in newspaper terms there’s a partisan/issues bias too, along with a clear character.

Then at the other end of the scale there’s hyperlocal journalism, geared around my street, my postcode, my community. These are organisations tackling incredibly specific situations, interested in minutiae and detail, as well as the impact of wider stories on the communities in question. It’s all about applying the national news to a very specific set of circumstances.

Somewhere in between, on a sliding scale depending on the size of the news organisation, is regional journalism. At the moment that’s where I fit in – at the city- and county-wide level depending on which paper I’m writing for. The stories I follow up are a mix of both – national stories with an impact on the communities I write for, and street-level stories with wider implications. We also cover wide regional stories with an impact on a substantial proportion of our readers – council stories, crime cases, the sorts of stories which nationals would not cover at all while hyperlocals would cover only the relevant parts.

After a conversation with the BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum at Hacks and Hackers, I started to understand that regional journalism has a particular set of needs and problems when it comes to data journalism. National news needs big picture data from which it can draw big trends. Government ata that groups England into its nine official regions works fine for broad sweeps; data that breaks down by city or county works well too. Hyperlocal news needs small details – court lists, crime reports, enormous amounts of council information – and it’s possible to not only extract but report and contextualise the details.

Regional news needs both, but in different ways. It needs those stories that the nationals wouldn’t cover and the hyperlocals would cover only part of. Data about the East of England is too vague for a paper that focuses primarily on 1/6 of the counties in the region; information from Breckland District Council is not universal enough when there are at least 13 other county and district councils in the paper’s patch. Government statistics by region need paragraphs attached looking at the vagaries of the statistics and how Cambridge skews everything a certain way. District council data has to be broadened out. Everything needs context.

The great thing about that? There are unending opportunities for good data journalism in regional news – opportunities to combine new technology and open data to produce something that’s relevant and useful to as many individuals as possible. The question is how we exploit them. I believe that we start by freeing up interested journalists to do data work beyond simply plotting their stories on a map, taking on stories that impact people on a regional level.

How do school catchment areas affect house prices? Since the county council decided to turn the lights off at midnight on certain streets, has there been an increase in crime? How have mental health service closures hit NHS waiting lists in the region? We should be using open data and freely available tools to do good regional journalism and helping people to find out.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

10 thoughts on “Three-tier journalism”

  1. While I agree with the general thrust of your post, I feel duty-bound to point out that there’s more than three tiers of journalism – where to consumer and trade journalists fit into your hierarchy?

  2. That’s a good point – I was thinking primarily of news journalism when writing this. Does consumer and trade journalism have a similar hierarchy of national/regional/hyperlocal stories and publications? Or would it be more appropriate to suggest national = stories with ramifications for a whole industry/sector, regional = relevant to a subsector or a high proportion of the industry, hyperlocal = highly niche? It’s not my field, so I’d be interested to hear your views.

  3. Oh, is that the sound of my colleagues on assorted titles’ newsdesks assembling pitchforks and torches? πŸ™‚

    I think the majority of what our journalists do falls squarely into the category of “news journalism”…

    I’d suggest that the actual three tiers are:

    1. National
    2. Specialist (region, subject, profession)
    3. Hyperniche (hyperlocal, specialist niche)

    So, just as national newspapers cover some professional and consumer topics, they cover some regional stories. And just as previous local niches are being carved up into ever-smaller hyperlocal niches, so are trade and consumer magazines being broken up into niches. A livestocks sales blog is to a farming magazine what a hyperlocal blog is to a regional newspaper…

  4. You’re right – that was some poor phrasing on my part. Is “general current affairs” more acceptable to the pitchfork crowd? πŸ™‚

    I like your three tiers – and I’m sure similar challenges and overlaps occur in doing data journalism on a regional newspaper as they do for a farming magazine. Both will have to make national and hyperlocal data relevant to their audiences by teasing out context and putting human stories alongside the numbers.

  5. I’m currently trying to connect the hyperlocal with the specialist publication as a sideline of my work for a trade publisher.

    The blog Local Regeneration aims to round up regeneration news from hyperlocals. I had hoped to do some joining up as you mentioned in your post, but so far, few themes have emerged in this area. Hoping they will do soon though.

    I only work part time, so I haven’t had enough time to do it justice. It still need lots of work. Any suggestions welcome.

  6. Hmm. I guess if patterns aren’t appearing from the bottom up, I’d start looking from the top down. Is there any data available regionally or nationally that deals with regeneration issues? I know there’s been a round of FOIs on on empty properties – is that somethif you can use to build up a better picture nationally? What happens if you start geotagging and mapping the stories you’ve got coming in – does it show you areas where there’s a lot of positive activity vs very little? I don’t know what the answers to all those questions are, but that’s probably where I’d start. What do you think?

  7. Interesting but hree levels have have been well-established for a long time:

    National: (national press, specialist press)
    Regional: (regional tv news, regional press eg Yorkshire Post)
    Local: (Local newspapers focusing on a town or city eg Taunton Times)

    There has always been a distinction between local and regional news in most areas they exist side by side because they provide different levels of detail – not sure why you lump them together as one.

    Hyperlocal is a new one that has risen thanks to the internet (making four).

    And international exists too (CNN, BBC, etc).

    That makes a minimum of five tiers by my count.

  8. I’m thinking specifically about the challenges posed by data journalism in the UK, which is why I grouped regional & local together and disregarded international. In my experience (working on both a regional and a local paper simultaneously) the differences in terms of data are very minor, and the challenges very similar – there’s still a lack of necessary breakdown and detail in a lot of centralised national datasets, and often smaller datasets are too narrowly focussed on one aspect or area in a local/regional patch to be entirely useful.

    Would you disagree with that assessment?

  9. Yes I agree that the type of data analysis carried out by local and regional journalists is very similar. However, I think its often easier to collate relevant figures for the regional press than for the local press – national datasets are often broken down by regions or counties, and regional news outlets are large enough for this scale of data to be relevant. However, as you say, county or regional breakdowns are often not much use to a smaller paper that covers a town that makes up just a small part of a county. I think the distinction between local and regional is useful in the context you are talking about.

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