Writing hyperlocal news features

October 3rd, 2012 by Jerome Turner in Hyperlocal | no comments

I am at the first stage of writing a story for the hyperlocal blog serving my local community, and have encountered some interesting issues. Admittedly, I may only be seeing these as issues now, after coding the content of several hundred hyperlocal stories, where a few months ago this would probably not have been a concern. A colleague on the project recently asked me if I felt I was more inclined towards creative citizenship activity as a result of working on the research. I had to say yes.

As I sit down to tackle this hyperlocal story, various questions arise. I’ll anonymise the details as much as possible, not just to save the privacy of those involved, but also because I’m sure these are issues that hyperlocal bloggers face across the board – funded or independent, urban or rural.

I’ll start by pointing out I’m not a news journalist, have never been one either online or in print. The closest I have come to this is my background in professionally writing for computer and design magazines. I have produced one story for this particular hyperlocal in the past. In short, I have little experience, and this is relatively new to me. However, as a result of our content analysis, there are elements of both mainstream journalism and more independent hyperlocal blogging that appeal to me. In the former, a sense of rigour, and desire to present an unbiased story; in the latter, a call on the immediate and often dedicated readership to respond in some way, an inclination to use all the multimedia and interactive powers of the web to create as rich content as possible (sharing, hyperlinks, comments, embedded video and slideshows).

essentials...

Bias

So, in this case I have a subject I would like to interview, partly because it’s clear to me that a large number of people on the blog’s Facebook group have issue with this particular subject and how they operate, or at least an opinion that borders on irritation. I am of the belief that these people are not seeing the whole picture. Hence my decision to interview. However, does that already set me up with a bias and agenda?

Approaching the subject

How to approach the subject? The short answer is by email, that’s what I have but will they be suspicious of my motives? I might be. I did at least get those contact details through one of their colleagues, who I know would have put in a good word. The hyperlocal blog in question is well respected, but this subject might not appreciate what I’m trying to do, essentially a positive profile of their activity. But if I point out this agenda too much, do I bias their response to my questions? And how much of this is a real problem – is it the case that any article is better than non? If it’s biased and that’s exposed, might that at least engender debate / engagement?

Tone

Next, tone. My route into the story is very personal, in that my motivation is based on how I saw those Facebook readers reflecting on this subject, so should I write in first person and include part of this route in the story? Is the personal touch relevant? Hyperlocal blogs do often deliver news with an editorial slant. Would it be helpful to do this and expose (declare) that bias I mentioned? Or as a piece of writing, does it get in the way of the story itself, the profile/interview?

More to the point perhaps, first person is an unusual tone for this blog. Some hyperlocals write like this (not many, and an editorial stance is usually then inherent), but it’s not the norm here. Is this a problem, in that it jars with the house style, or might it be seen as a breath of fresh of air?

And yet more hand wringing…

The story is a feature, rather than a news story, or announcement of event as is the norm of this site, so does this also jar? Is it so unexpected as to be immediately obvious that it’s not written by the usual writers, and thus the appeal of the story is watered down?

A final concern that strikes me (although there may be many others), should I allow my subject to see the story before publishing? Or does this further reinforce the potential for bias towards whatever concerns they may have, in terms of the story they want to tell? If they took umbrage, how would I react?

As I’ve said before, it’s not often the case that hyperlocal blogs publish features or profile pieces, but I’d be interested in hearing experiences from other writers who’ve been in a similar situation in this area. How easy is it to develop a natural feel for how the story should be written? Do you consider yourself at one with your community, and therefore able to easily make these judgement calls?

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