Local Journalism on the Internet Small, Essential yet Underfunded

Screenshot des „Heddesheim Blog“
Screenshot des „Heddesheim Blog“ | Photo (detail): © „Heddesheim Blog“

While the big publishing companies fight for survival, local journalism on the Internet is becoming increasingly diverse, though funding remains its biggest challenge.

2013 was general election year in Germany, with high-ranking politicians taking turns to appear on the country’s chat shows and talk about the key lines of conflict, from the minimum wage to the euro crisis. But what is it that preoccupies those candidates standing for election on one’s own doorstep – those who are directly elected by voters in their constituencies?

“Which is the right candidate for me?”, asked local newspaper Prenzlauer Berg Nachrichten, reporting on the direct candidates in this district of Berlin on a very localized level that none of the big dailies in the German capital could match. The trend towards what is known as hyper-local reporting on the Internet is continuing, and appears to offer great promise in view of the ongoing media crisis. After all, it is local newspapers in particular that have long since been hard hit by the crisis, with many small newspapers having already folded. The most prominent example is the Westfälische Rundschau, the first German daily to operate without its own editorial office: all that has remained of the newspaper is its name, with most of its articles being bought in from rival publications. As a result, people living in the region will seek media diversity on their doorsteps in vain.

Criticism of local news reporting

The Heddesheim Blog is regarded as a pioneer among hyper-local blogs aspiring to offer journalistic quality. The blog began life in the spring of 2009 when journalist Hardy Prothmann posted an article in which he criticized the local regional newspaper as being too one-sided in its reporting. Today Prothmann heads a network comprising eleven local blogs and one regional blog, all of them based in the north of Baden-Württemberg. The issues they address range from the election of the local mayor to opposition to a new industrial estate, and their content is taken seriously: “These days we have hardly any problems getting in touch with the people we want to talk to in local authorities and official departments”, says Prothmann, who explains that the blog network regularly attracts 3,000 readers every day.

Unlike the Heddesheim Blog, the Prenzlauer Berg Nachrichten did not start out as a voluntary initiative. “Independent local journalism is important, which is why it must also be economically viable”, says Philipp Schwörbel, the paper’s publisher. He took his paper online in December 2010, having previously drawn up a business plan. His publication is targeted at the 150,000 people who live in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district – a population comparable to that of Heidelberg. “For years, Berlin’s major newspapers have been increasingly withdrawing from local reporting”, explains Schwörbel, “but it is a dangerous thing if there is no longer any public sphere in one of the smallest entities of the democratic system.” The paper’s website meanwhile attracts 50,000 visits per month.

From opinion blog to conventional journalism

The local journalism landscape on the Internet has become more diverse, featuring everything from blogs in which writers vehemently put forward their own opinions to conventional journalism. So far, however, no studies have been conducted to ascertain the precise number and dissemination of the articles. Whereas for example in the Tegernseer Stimme in the Bavarian town of Gmund only the members of the editorial office are publishing, the Jenapolis in the state of Thuringia also allows ordinary citizens to contribute articles.

At the same time, it is hard to control quality given the variety of local websites. Some – including the Prenzlauer Berg Nachrichten and the Heddesheim Blog – have meanwhile joined the German Press Council and have thus committed themselves to upholding the German Press Code, which for example involves making advertising clearly distinguishable.

For local publications, however, funding still remains the biggest challenge: they do not have big publishing houses behind them, and they suffer from the fact that advertising on the Internet is not nearly as lucrative as print advertising. Most of the websites try to keep their overheads as low as possible: they employ hardly any staff, preferring instead to use freelancers and relying on supporters who in some cases are willing to write articles without pay. Given these scant resources, it is very difficult to pursue investigative journalism. Both the Heddesheim Blog and the Prenzlauer Berg Nachrichten are funded through adverts, so-called “partner pages” which feature small and medium-sized businesses from the local region, and through a group of benevolent friends and supporters. Both publications claim that sales are growing and that they are confident about the future, but neither wish to name any precise figures.

“Two years ago, we were still being asked by potential advertising clients whether we also had plans to produce a print version”, recalls Philipp Schwörbel. They no longer receive any such enquiries, with online advertising becoming increasingly buoyant instead. He is now pinning his hopes on the advertising business on the Internet becoming more lucrative too. Until their funding situation improves, these websites with their low fixed costs and small workforces do at least have one advantage: “Obviously we have better chances of survival because we can react more flexibly”, says Prothmann.