The Economist ran a story this week on the 16 new local television stations that are due to launch around the UK over the next year. Here in London, the local station will be run by the Evening Standard. The producers will no doubt be looking to use the news staple of their daily freesheet as the basis for their television output.
Will it work though? I think not, and the so called Pothole Paradox underpins this belief.
The Pothole Paradox
The Pothole Paradox was coined by Steven Johnson a few years ago. It basically says that there are many things in our lives that are considered newsworthy, but the very nature of these events mean that they are only newsworthy to a limited number of people. The pothole in the name for instance is one. If a gaping hole in my local street gets fixed, that is newsworthy to me, but probably of limited interest to the other 8 million or so people that reside in London.
To give a more real example. There’s a shop near me called Bagel King. It has nearly 5,000 fans on Facebook, and mentions of the place regularly fill up tweets about the local area. If the shop were to close, it would have a big impact on the local community. It’s extremely unlikely however that it would merit a mention in the Evening Standard, or their television alternative.
The economics of local news
And that’s a problem. For you see professional news outlets have relatively high costs, and in order to recoup those costs they either have to sell lots of subscriptions or sell lots of advertising. Both require selling to the mainstream, which inevitably means that the hyper local news that is of real interest to most of us is ignored in favour of stories that they believe have the highest target audience.
So long as news networks have these costs they will always be slowly descending into irrelevance at a local level because the numbers won’t add up for them.
Peer to peer local news
Twitter has bridged the gap to an extent, but it’s still difficult for the average person to find accurate and relevant local news via the site. Maybe instead of producing a TV station therefore, local news providers can build peer networks that allow local citizens to create and share the news that is of interest and of relevance to them. That way costs are kept low, and the space constraints of a physical newspaper are removed.
So for local news to succeed I believe people like the Evening Standard need to act as the network rather than the supplier. They need to enable people to submit their own news and then provide the tools to ensure the best stuff floats to the top.