by Dr Josie Vine
This three-piece portfolio of text-based journalism (three columns) are the product of reflective-practice research exploring the question: What is the civic function of Hyperlocal journalism from the perspective of a Hyperlocal professional practitioner?
The three pieces cover the monthly meetings of Maribyrnong, Brimbank and Hobsons Bay City Councils, and are published in the May, June, July 2023 editions of the Inner West Community Foundation’s Hyperlocal news outlet, The Westsider. The Westsider has had an increasingly important democratic function since News Corp withdrew its local Leader group of newspapers from Melbourne’s inner west in 2020.
The three portfolio pieces were developed by the researcher’s attendance at each of the City Council’s meetings over a three-month period, analysis of council documents and interviews with various news makers. The result was coverage of three important local issues – the McIvor Reserve Redevelopment; Hobson Bay’s Public Toilet Strategy; Brimbank’s draft LGBQIA+ Action Plan – that had received minimal attention (in the latter’s case, no attention) in any other media outlet. In other words, through professional practice (particularly attendance at local government meetings) we can see Hyperlocal journalism has an important civic function within communities devoid of local commercial news outlets.
Background Journalism scholarship generally agrees community-run Hyperlocal news outlets have emerged as important alternative democratic institutions since the withdrawal of local commercial news. This conclusion is reached largely through case study and interview analysis (Carson et al, 2016; Downman and Murray, 2020; Harte, et al, 2019). Yet the civic function of individual Hyperlocal journalists, from the personal perspective of a professional journalism practitioner, has not been explored. This three-piece portfolio fills the gap in the body of knowledge by exploring the research question: What is the civic function of Hyperlocal journalism from the lived experience of a Hyperlocal professional practitioner?
Contribution ‘Rates, Roads and Rubbish’ explores the above question through the researcher’s critical self-reflective practice for the Inner West Community Foundation’s Hyperlocal news outlet, The Westsider. The researcher took a community-engagement role as Westsider local government reporter in April 2023. The researcher attended Brimbank, Maribyrnong and Hobsons Bay City Council monthly meetings in April, May and June. From these meetings, the researcher wrote three columns, published sequentially in the Westsider’s May 2023, June 2023 and July 2023 editions. Using three local issues as case-studies – Maribyrnong’s McIvor Reserve redevelopment; Hobsons Bay’s Public Toilet Strategy; Brimbank’s LBGTQIA+ Action Plan – this portfolio explores Hyperlocal journalism’s civic role from the lived experience of a professional practitioner.
Significance All three pieces were published after peer review (or, in industry-speak, subediting) by Westsider editor and former ABC journalist, Barbara Heggen. On the McIvor Reserve redevelopment plan piece, Ms Heggen emailed: ‘It’s looking great Josie … I’m so thrilled to have your article … it’s really going to help make such a difference …’ On the Hobsons Bay Public Toilet Strategy piece, Ms Heggen emailed: ‘Oh it was great Josie! … I had to trim just a wee bit because the word count was a bit over… but the tone is spot on …’ On Brimbank’s draft LBGTQIA+ Action Plan piece Ms Heggen wrote: ‘I had a read and this is great. You navigated the legals very deftly so well done.’ Hits on Westsider’s website have increased since May. The Westsider is delivered to more than 70 libraries, shopping centres and cafes throughout Melbourne’s inner west.
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL FROM THE AUTHOR
An important part of exploring the research question What is the civic function of Hyperlocal journalism from the lived experience of a Hyperlocal professional practitioner? was the reflective-practice behind the portfolio pieces. The researcher physically attended three council meetings every month. Each council meeting was preceded by extensive analysis of council documents (agendas, minutes, draft plans and proposals), and many interviews with various community and council stakeholders. An important element to the research question’s exploration was the fact that no other news outlet attended the meetings, meaning any information appearing in any other mainstream media was garnered from meeting recordings. This is an issue because without physical attendance at the meetings, much information of public interest is unobtainable. This was particularly evident in Brimbank’s June meeting (appearing in July edition) when live streaming was cut after police were called to control the angry crowd in the public gallery. As a result, The Westsider was the only media outlet to report on the whole meeting and the diversity of opinion being canvassed (a key function of journalism as a democratic institution). If The Westsider had not been at the meeting, the public would have little context for the debate, and how the impasse was resolved. Similar situations occurred at the Maribyrnong and Hobsons Bay meetings. Although other media garnered information from the live-stream of these meetings, they did not send journalists to cover meetings in-person. This meant The Westsider was the only media outlet to interview protestors outside council chambers and in the public gallery. The result was The Westsider’s coverage was more well-rounded, diverse and contextualised. This suggests Hyperlocal journalism can, indeed, provide an important civic function in conveying news of public interest to communities devoid of local commercial media.
Dr Josie Vine has been teaching and researching with the RMIT Journalism program since 2006. Prior to this she worked in regional print and radio regional news media. Her research interest is in the history and culture of Australian journalism, and her current project is exploring the past and future of local news media. She currently volunteers with the Hyperlocal inner west news outlet, The Westsider, as local government reporter. Her latest publications include Larrikins, Rebels and Journalistic Freedom in Australia (Springer, 2021) and Newspaper Building Design and Journalism Cultures in Australia and the UK (Routledge, 2023).
Main image: courtesy of the author