At risk of stating the obvious, we’ve had a lot of snow this week. News coverage of the cold snap generally has been at saturation levels, often at the expense of more important stories such as the Robinson scandal – I’m surely not the only person fed up of news footage of people telling us how much snow they’ve had in their town or press websites asking readers to send in their pictures of the weather. It’s winter, it’s supposed to snow and be cold. And, ideally, things should run more or less smoothly like they do in the rest of Europe in mid-winter. Unfortunately, however, things tend to grind to a halt at the first flakes here. It’s a cliché but only because it’s broadly true.
And precisely because things fall apart in the UK when we get more than a centimetre of snow, local news sources are vital for keeping people informed about what’s going on, or not as the case may be. Here in Manchester, we were particularly badly hit by the weather with some 8 inches of snow falling overnight on Monday/Tuesday. Manchester was chaotic on Tuesday morning. Even main roads were barely passable and, unsurprisingly, public transport was in severely short supply. The GMPTE website had almost no useful information, if you could even load it. If you wanted to know anything at all – which buses were running, whether schools were closed, or what officialdom was doing – there was only one place to turn. Local media. (Well, two, actually, as Twitter became an excellent source of real-time updates. More on that in a bit.)
The Manchester Evening News reinstated its live weather coverage using Cover It Live blogging software and had pretty good real-time updates on public transport services collated partly by the paper’s reporters and partly from aggregated tweets. BBC Radio Manchester turned its breakfast show into a rolling news service as it kept Mancunians informed about school closures, traffic updates and statements from the police, NHS and council about the changing situation.
I must disclose here that I’m currently working at Radio Manchester as part of the inFUZE programme (which aims to provide professional journalists with additional skills) and I’d started there only the day before. So when the snow fell, I was determined to get to the BBC by fair means or foul. I left home early, expecting my 20-minute bus ride to take considerably longer. Even before I stepped outside, I’d used Twitter to crowdsource information on the buses and knew I might not be able to catch one. Mancunians were using Twitter as a form of public service announcement platform – incredibly useful for those few of us on the move. As I waited in the still-falling snow, I joined in passing on what little info I had.
When I finally arrived at the newsroom (by cab, and by luck), only a skeleton staff had made it in and the phones were ringing non-stop. BBC reporters worked incredibly hard to get the news out (and I did my bit monitoring Twitter for them to get updates on bus services, closed institutions and the like). Tuesday’s radio schedule was completely rejigged to stay abreast of the news and key staff stayed in a nearby hotel overnight to ensure the news would be out on Wednesday as well. And so it went for the rest of the week.
An internal memo at the BBC on Thursday indicated that page impressions on the various regional news hubs on the BBC website had rocketed up to 23-fold, while figures for radio and TV audiences tuning in for local coverage had also gone through the roof. No doubt MEN’s website has seen similar traffic. All because of a few inches of snow. The Cumbrian papers combined forces during the autumn floods there to share real-time information on the internet, using reporters, aggregated tweets and updates from the emergency services to keep Cumbrians up to speed on the disaster unfolding there. It serves to prove that in such situations, only local media can provide the kind of on-the-ground hard facts that local people need.
An unprecedented number of local papers closed in 2009, or made drastic staff cuts in order to stave off closure. Communities without local media are left bereft, not just of the day-to-day news but also a focal point when there’s a crisis. Hyperlocal news is the buzzword for 2010 – most media pundits agree that hyperlocal news will fill such gaps where papers have closed and many also agree that this will be the year that sees many self-employed journalists setting up their own hyperlocal ventures. While few will have the kind of clout enjoyed by the BBC regional hubs or papers like the MEN, they will undoubtedly play a crucial role in keeping communities informed on the things that matter, particularly in a crisis situation. The snow will be gone in a week or so, but the need for solid local reporting will remain forever. It matters not whether that reporting is on a small-scale hyperlocal basis or by a long-established newspaper or radio station. The only thing that matters is that local people continue to be able to get quality local news.