My PhD – Hyperlocal’s place in the Public Sphere

Another excerpt from my PhD (previously…). I have to deliver 20k words to my supervisor by late September and I’m currently knee deep in the various positions taken on Habermas’s idea of the ‘Public Sphere’.

This is my way in to this section. I pick up on a recent piece by a NUJ rep (PDF) and then suggest that the ongoing discussion about hyperlocal publishing can be see as a negotiation about its position in the public sphere. Later, after this excerpt, I get all complicated and discuss alternative public spheres, plebeian public spheres, counterpublics, subalterns…. I could go on but anyway, here’s that intro.

Hyperlocal’s place in the Public Sphere
Chris Morley, a senior officer in the National Union of Journalists and a former local journalist, has argued (2013) that the ‘havoc’ wreaked by media owners wanting to extract as much economic value as possible from a declining local press means that the case should be made for local newspapers to be seen as community assets and therefore allow them to be ‘rescued’ by citizens under the 2011 Localism Act. Without a robust local press, who will do the job of: “holding the rich, powerful and those with vested interest to scrutiny and account in the public good, while standing up for those that do not have a voice” (Morley 2013)?

Morley is lamenting the “apparently remorseless advance of the market as the arbiter of the nature, the content, the form, the labour relations and mode of production and the ownership of the local press” (Franklin and Murphy 1998: 22) Morley’s non-market-led vision of local journalism’s future reveals, as much of the commentary around hyperlocal does, attitudes to the role of local news-making in the public sphere. There seems an assumption that an endeavour such as hyperlocal has a role in helping citizens form their views about democratic processes at local level and understand the political alternatives facing them.

James Curran notes the “divergence of approach between liberal and radical perspectives [on the public sphere] also give rise to different normative judgements about the practice of journalism” (Curran 1991: 32). Liberal judgements seem to infuse the current discussion on hyperlocal, essentially seeing it as playing a useful role in the democratic functioning of society. It “feeds the democratic imagination” as Luke Goode argues (2009: 1294). In the process it further supports a liberal ideal of ‘mending’ communities: “I do think the growing belief in hyperlocal media needs much more thought, especially in Britain. We have fractured communities here and there is an urgent need to find some glue” (Greenslade 2007). For Chen et al, hyperlocals “serve not only as a traditional information source but also as a forum for ongoing discussion of local affairs and a mechanism for building and strengthening relationships among local residents” (2012: 932).

Normative ideals about how citizens should be able to participate in decision-making in society are articulated in Jürgen Habermas’s work on the public sphere. In his key work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989’ originally published in 1962 in German)

etc. etc. etc…..

Below is the bibliography as it is at the moment for the public sphere section (much more to come here, it’s very much a work in progress):
Atton, C. (2002) Alternative media. London: SAGE.
Chen, N.-T. N., Dong, F., Ball-Rokeach, S. J., Parks, M. & Huang, J. (2012) Building a new media platform for local storytelling and civic engagement in ethnically diverse neighborhoods. New Media & Society, Vol 14, No 6, pp. 931-950.
Comedia (1984) The alternative press: The development of underdevelopment: Comedia. Media, Culture & Society, Vol 6, No 2, pp. 95-102.
Curran, J. (1991) Rethinking the media as a public sphere. In: DAHLGREN, P. & SPARKS, C. (eds.) Communication and citizenship: Journalism and the public sphere in the new media age. Routledge. pp. 27-57.
Downey, J. & Fenton, N. (2003) New media, counter publicity and the public sphere. New Media & Society, Vol 5, No 2, pp. 185-202.
Downing, J. D. (1988) The alternative public realm: the organization of the 1980s anti-nuclear press in West Germany and Britain. Media, Culture & Society, Vol 10, No 2, pp. 163-181.
Franklin, B. & Murphy, D. (1998) Making the local news: local journalism in context. London: Routledge.
Fraser, N. (1990) Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. Social text, No 25/26, pp. 56-80.
Fraser, N. (1995) Politics, culture, and the public sphere: toward a postmodern conception. In: NICHOLSON, L. & SEIDMAN, S. (eds.) Social postmodernism: Beyond identity politics. Cambridge Univ. Press. pp. 287-312.
Garnham, N. (1992) The Media and the Public Sphere. In: CALHOUN, C. J. (ed.) Habermas and the public sphere. MIT. pp. 359-376.
Goode, L. (2009) Social news, citizen journalism and democracy. New Media & Society, Vol 11, No 8, pp. 1287-1305.
Greenslade, R. (2007) The peoples’ papers? A new view of hyperlocal media [Online]. The Guardian. Available: [Accessed 26 March].
Habermas, J. (1992) Further reflections on the public sphere. In: CALHOUN, C. J. (ed.) Habermas and the public sphere. MIT. pp. 421-461.
Habermas, J. R. (1989) The structural transformation of the public sphere : an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. [Cambridge]: Polity.
Harcup, T. (2003) `The Unspoken – Said’: The Journalism of Alternative Media. Journalism, Vol 4, No 3, pp. 356-376.
Harcup, T. (2005) ‘I’m Doing this to Change the World’, : journalism in alternative and mainstream media. Journalism Studies, Vol 6, No 3, pp. 361-374.
Harcup, T. (2011) Alternative journalism as active citizenship. Journalism, Vol 12, No 1, pp. 15-31.
Harcup, T. (2013) Alternative journalism, alternative voices. London ; New York, NY: Routledge.
Kaufer, D. & Al-Malki, A. M. (2009) The War on Terror through Arab-American Eyes: The Arab-American Press as a Rhetorical Counterpublic. Rhetoric Review, Vol 28, No 1, pp. 47-65.
Landry, C., Morley, D., Southwood, R. & Wright, P. (1985) What a way to run a railroad : an analysis of radical failure. London: Comedia.
Morley, C. (2013) How Regional Media Companies Brought Themselves Down. Available: [Accessed 21 August 2013].
Simone, M. (2006) CODEPINK alert: mediated citizenship in the public sphere. Social Semiotics, Vol 16, No 2, pp. 345-364.
Squires, C. R. (2002) Rethinking the black public sphere: An alternative vocabulary for multiple public spheres. Communication Theory, Vol 12, No 4, pp. 446-468.
Wahl-Jorgensen, K. (2007) Journalists and the public: newsroom culture, letters to the editor, and democracy. Cresskill, N.J: Hampton.

My PhD – everyday digital activism

My colleague Annette Naudin occasionally posts updates about her progress in her PhD. I like it best when she excerpts from whichever section she’s currently work on. She writes so well. Go read:

So, inspired by Annette, from time to time I will use this blog to put sections of mine in the public domain. I fully expect that none of what I’m writing here will end up in the final thing but nonetheless, writing about writing may help me reflect and therefore redraft. Here’s something that I put into a paper that myself and my research colleague at work are presenting at a conference in May. I’m interested in Pink’s work about everyday stuff and also in notions of banality. The first paragraph is the preamble.

In what they describe as a “Genealogical Discourse Analysis’ of scholarship on participatory journalism, Borger et al. note that scholars display a “strong faith in the democratic potential of digital technologies” (Borger et al. 2012: 125) and that such technological optimism “can be traced back to internet enthusiasts of the 1990s who voiced great expectations regarding the reinvigoration of the public sphere” (Borger et al. 2012: 125). To some extent, we can see how hyperlocal is in danger of being caught up in what Curran warns is a tendency for ‘millenarian’ prophecies to accompany developments in new media (Curran 2010b). But there are other ways in which we might reframe discussions about Hyperlocal that take account of the role of technology but move beyond assessing its value as an aspect of the ‘networked’ fourth estate (Benkler 2011).

Sarah Pink’s work (2012) in calling for a study of the everyday through a theory of ‘place’ is useful. She notes that ‘place’ is an abstract concept and we might more usefully consider the idea of a ‘sense of place’ and thereby the ways in which ‘place-making’ happens (Pink 2012: 24). For Pink it’s a study of the everyday that matters. People access online in a multifaceted way, she argues: switching between platforms, reading from a wide range of sources, making contributions in social media updates or in posting photographs. As an ethnographer, Pink wants us to see that these online practices happen simultaneously with an offline engagement with place-making (Pink 2012: 131). This should make us rethink our approach to a study of online activism:

Contemporary social media platforms and the technologies through which we access them make digital activism interweave with our everyday media practices and the environment in which we participate (Pink 2012: 131).

Chris Atton likewise argues that we must study “the banality of the Internet and of the everyday practices that construct it and its relations to the wider world” (Atton 2004: 7). He makes the case that it is the ‘significant everyday’ that is of value to the cultural studies ethnographer interested in understanding how “the possibilities for meaning are organised” (Atton 2004: 8).

Costera Meijer (2012) is also concerned with the everyday and in particular the ways in which ‘participatory storytelling’ can help bring the everyday into media representations of neighbourhoods in order to strengthen community relations and work against the mainstream media’s dominant discourse of ‘‘the problem neighbourhood frame’’ (Costera Meijer 2012: 19). Such a framing, she argues, leads to social isolation and stigmatization (see also Chen et al. 2012). Postill argues that “banal activism has been neglected by internet scholars” (Postill 2008: 419). He draws on his own study conducted in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where the “vibrant Internet scene” (Postill 2008: 422) contributed to an active culture of participation and debate amongst residents on matters that mattered only to that specific locality. He critiques the tendency for researchers to over-simplify the notions of ‘network’ and ‘community’ – “[it] is a vague notion favoured in public rhetoric, not a sharp analytical tool” (Postill 2008: 421). He argues instead that we need to pay attention to the ways in which “people, technologies and other cultural artefacts are co-producing new forms of residential sociality in unpredictable ways” (Postill 2008: 426).


Atton, C. (2004) An alternative Internet. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Benkler, Y. (2011) Free Irresponsible Press: Wikileaks and the Battle over the Soul of the Networked Fourth Estate. Harv. CR-CLL Rev., Vol 46, pp. 311.

Borger, M., Van Hoof, A., Costera Meijer, I. & Sanders, J. (2012) Constructing Participatory Journalism as a Scholarly Object. Digital Journalism, Vol 1, No 1, pp. 117-134.

Chen, N.-T. N., Dong, F., Ball-Rokeach, S. J., Parks, M. & Huang, J. (2012) Building a new media platform for local storytelling and civic engagement in ethnically diverse neighborhoods. New Media & Society, Vol 14, No 6, pp. 931-950.

Costera Meijer, I. (2012) When News Hurts. Journalism Studies, Vol 14, No 1, pp. 13-28.

Curran, J. (2010b) Technology Foretold. In: FENTON, N. (ed.) New media, old news : journalism and democracy in the digital age. London: SAGE. pp. 19-34.

Pink, S. (2012) Situating everyday life: practices and places. London: SAGE.

Postill, J. (2008) Localizing the internet beyond communities and networks. New Media & Society, Vol 10, No 3, pp. 413-431.