There are hundreds of hyperlocal sites across the UK, all with energetic editors and enthusiastic audiences. But the vast majority make no profit and pay no salaries. Steve Dyson reports on what makes hyperlocal websites tick.
When David Cameron talks about his ‘Big Society’, he could almost be describing hyperlocal entrepreneurs.
To paraphrase the Prime Minister, he wants us all to: lead a great project in our neighbourhood; invest time and effort to launch or support campaigns; be active in our micro communities; and root out waste in government.
And there they are, armies of independent, new media whizz-kids, acting out that dream at grassroots level.
Yes, in a back bedroom near you is a hyperlocal website: picking up the word on the street; highlighting protests; embarrassing powers that be; and, occasionally, sourcing great stories that hit the mainstream media.
The PM suggests people should perhaps volunteer to start with, but then use this experience to launch private businesses, or to become part of a new one, meeting local needs in responsible ways that eventually make money, together creating wealth and therefore jobs to lift us all out of recession.
Whatever your thoughts on this grand philosophy, it’s precisely what hyperlocal websites are already trying to do. They are just not quite at the stage of making money... yet.
The Lichfield Blog
Success stories include www.thelichfieldblog.co.uk, created in January 2008 by former local journalist Ross Hawkes, now lecturing in online media at Staffordshire University.
“It began as somewhere for me to have a general whinge,” says Hawkes, “but caught a gap in the market as more people wanted to know about things going on in the city.
“You used to have to wait if you wanted to know what was going on in Lichfield – or where that police car was going – so I decided to provide an update every day. If only it was one update a day now!”
After two and a half years, the Lichfield Blog averages around 13,000 unique users a month – although Hawkes is much prouder of creating “a hub of information”.
“There’s something satisfying about giving a small community group a great deal of coverage they would never otherwise get.”
Hawkes owns the site, but is in the process of applying for Community Interest Company status and is quite firm about not wanting to make money.
“I am essentially giving away the possibility of making money. I simply do not have the time or inclination. If the lessons I learn can help one of my students, then that will do very nicely for me.”
Hawkes’ partners are technical specialist Philip John and photographic expert Nick Brickett, and they call on a diverse team to provide content in return for bylines.
“Surely that’s enough?” jokes Hawkes, who finds the not-for-profit nature means people are willing to donate time, with ex-hacks just loving to see their work published.
“It’s a benefit of hyperlocal over big media: we’re not seen as a corporate operation, so people know we’re not in a position to cough up,” says Hawkes.
Hawkes’ only commercial rule is one he credits to blogging entrepreneur Rick Waghorn: “The first step is always being not for loss, and we’ve achieved that, covering costs and even buying small amounts of equipment to assist what we do.”
Referred to by the Guardian as the ‘Godfather of Hyperlocal’, Waghorn runs a clever advert-audience aggregator called Addiply.
His site claims to “match advertisers to appropriate community publishers, offering an easy-to-use, open and accountable advertising platform.
“We can empower local and niche publishers to set their own advertising agenda; to select their own ad placements; choose their own ad rates. To be masters of their own advertising destiny, in short.”
Hawkes explains: “By pitching ads at £10 for a month, we’ve aimed at affordable prices, and we don’t sell them to just anyone. It may sound like commercial suicide, but we’ve turned down advertisers in the past for not being local. It’s about maintaining our link with our community and audience through all aspects of the site.”
While basic costs are covered, the Lichfield Blog cannot afford to pay anyone for their time and effort. Is this approach sustainable?
“If I decided to jack it in, then probably not,” admits Ross. “I’m not sure who would be crazy enough to spend all night and every spare minute wading through copy without payment!”
But he insists that his bid for Community Interest Company status is the beginning of a plan, enabling the Lichfield Blog to seek funding from bodies to support local training initiatives, for example.
Brighton & Hove News
It’s that long-term fight for survival that is now the focus of Frank le Duc, founder and main driver of www.brightonandhovenews.org.
Along with co-founder Sue Pearson, le Duc launched the site in October last year “as an experiment to see if we could do it and if it was possible to sustain”.
It was, and the site has become one of the UK’s busiest, uploading stories seven days a week and quickly achieving an average 10,000 unique visitors a month.
The Brighton site covers traditional news – council, courts, crime, health et al – with a team of five or six volunteer contributors.
Like many sites, the only fixed costs are around £40 a year to have it hosted – although this ignores the mileage and parking fees needed to attend courts and council, the use of home computers and internet connections, let alone volunteers’ newsgathering time.
All this was a great sideline for le Duc, until he was recently made redundant from his job in September this year.
“I need to see if I can carry on doing it for a living, or at least for part of a living, generating enough revenue to justify paying myself for half a working day each day.”
Interestingly, le Duc has to date resisted carrying adverts, hoping to find funding elsewhere.
“I’ve looked at Google ads, but am not convinced that’s the answer,” says le Duc, who in a long journalistic career has regularly been involved in training.
“I’d like to use the site as a basis for selling internet skills to other people, for lecturing about online, and offering web design services to others.
“And we could possibly sell on stories that we source for the site – acting like a freelance agency.
“Other areas need exploring, such as funds from organisations that might want to conduct trials to supplement the growing democratic deficit in reporting, now that papers don’t staff courts and council in the way they used to.”
Le Duc concedes his approaches are at early stages, but names the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Reuters Foundation and the Leverhulme Trust as potential targets, along with Google and Yahoo who, he argues, “have surely got an interest in the long-term future of good content”.
“If I’m successful at bringing funding aboard, the site will become more professional; if not, it will continue as a hobby platform for a few people to write about a place we all care about.”
Like Hawkes, le Duc’s altruism is unquestionable, and their determination is typical, sparking the interest of regional newspaper groups in trying to harness the collective audiences of hyperlocal sites.
The most impressive is the Birmingham Mail’s ‘Your Communities’ project launched in August this year.
Run from the Trinity Mirror-owned paper’s www.birminghammail.net website, this has 34 community sections, providing readers with news and information from their local area.
This already features links to 25 existing hyperlocal websites which have agreed for their content to be used by the Mail in print and online, correctly credited and with links back to their site. The Lichfield Blog is one of those signed up.
In return, RSS feeds from the hyperlocal sites appear prominently within the Mail's ‘Your Communities’ section, and the paper makes relevant photos available to sites taking part free of charge.
Trinity Mirror is not the only regional media group trialling hyperlocal expansion.
Scottish broadcaster STV this August launched a new hyperlocal news network called STV Local, announcing that it would be rolled out across Scotland, developing contacts with partner organisations, communities and local contributors.
Another is Northcliffe Media, whose ‘Local People’ network of hyperlocal sites has grown to 100 in a year, relying entirely on user-generated content.
This growing interest from mainstream media groups shows they detect, at the very least, free content, and perhaps new profit avenues. But will this help or hinder true hyperlocals?
Hawkes is relaxed: “These partnerships are a natural fit. Both sides have something the other wants and the walls are finally coming down. By allowing us access to some of the vast library of images, etc, we benefit.
“By allowing them to link into our content and use some of it in print, the Mail is able to tap into our coverage of Lichfield and give a section of their audience a valuable resource.”
Paul Bradshaw is one of the UK’s top social media gurus, the main author of the ‘Online Journalism Blog’ and founder of ‘Help Me Investigate', which provide crucial tips for hyperlocals.
Now a Visiting Professor at City University London’s journalism school, Bradshaw says: “The Mail project specifically seems well thought out and of genuine benefit to bloggers.
“But they [partnerships] tend to be built on such shallow foundations that they are often likely to break down. I suspect they are at the bottom of the priority pile for overworked journalists, and hyperlocal bloggers have little desire to be featured under a traditional media banner.
“If bloggers don't see any long-term benefit, they will start to drift away. You need someone to make the time to meet bloggers in person and build relationships – but also a culture that supports those if that person leaves. I don't think most newspapers have either of those.”
Importantly, Bradshaw believes that hyperlocals are sustainable in the long-term – with or without partnerships.
“They are sustainable mainly because the costs are so low. I'm not sure if many [hyperlocals] are likely to become big employers, but many find that the reputation and contacts built through the blog leads to work.
“The most immediate benefits are making a positive difference in your community, and belonging to that community.”
Only time will tell if this philanthropy can withstand the push for new profit avenues introduced by regional media groups.