Hyperlocal outlook: challenging

We discussed hyperlocal media with Jon Kingsbury of innovation charity/think-tank Nesta this lunchtime in an intense two-hour session. Jon shared findings from Nesta’s reports, including one done by Kantar, and exchanged views with participants, some from our own hyperlocal media (In touch with…, a-vision). He stressed that there is little hard information about new media readership and profitability and Nesta’s studies have “tried to define where knowledge wasn’t rather than where it was, to shine a light where there was very little knowledge available.” Here are some of the talking points:

  • Hyperlocal is a contested term but generally means serving a single town, village, postcode or other highly localized community. Hyperlocalization has been seen as a hopeful area for the news industry because people do want to know what is going on immediately around them and national (and even regional) media don’t tell you. Jon stressed that the growth of smartphones and location-sensitive tagging opens further potential for “mobile first” news that has yet to be realized.
  • Jon said survey data show that people want information about their surroundings but aren’t as interested in the citizen engagement opportunities that press gurus talk about. Many of the examples shown in the seminar were of listings and advertisements – parish newsletter and yellow pages type stuff.
  • Very few hyperlocal media sites in the UK are making money. They are fragile because the news-related advertising market is so weak. Advertising pounds are flowing to large consolidated platforms such as Google and Auto Trader, not to mention Facebook which also has the most hyperlocal homepages. The successful independent websites tend to operate in large, dense neighborhoods (like Brixton and Kentish Town in London) which other advert sellers have overlooked.
  • For news websites, close attention to Google rankings is critical in attracting readers now that people use search as their main interface. Researcher Dave Harte has calculated that a hyperlocal news story is published once every two minutes, but nobody knows how many of them get read.
  • Since information is a public good, it’s been proposed that sites could be funded by local councils. Bloggers and entrepreneurs who identify as journalists are naturally allergic to this as it compromises their independence from the officials they cover. In a small operation you can’t separate the editorial department from the business department. Even in bigger shops, it can be a challenge.
  • Another idea is to set up a programme of national funding. But national media policy is based on providing universal access and filling gaps, and there is no particular gap in hyperlocal information availability – we have more information at our fingertips than ever before in history and new public information blogs crop up all the time.
  • Many citizen journalists on these blogs are doing worthy work, but their efforts lack staying power. Once the founder needs to spend more time earning a living, they taper off or fold. And if you want to open a reader forum and really use the public sphere, that’s even more time consuming – just blocking spam is a job.
  • Traditional media haven’t done a good job pushing into hyperlocal and are currently trying to make fewer stories go further, not find new stories. Readers have rejected efforts like patch.com where a standard model is franchised everywhere without grassroots local involvement, Jon says. People seek authenticity and trustworthiness based on local reputation – local look and feel. Is there a good way for bigger media to ally with the independent bloggers, although they have traditionally seen one another as threats? Could national and regional media give the hyperlocal blogs stability while the blogs give them authenticity and extend their reach? To be continued.

There were a few inspiring stories. The Charlton Champion in Southeast London carries out public affairs reporting (here’s a council meeting report). The Kentish Towner expanded from a blog to a free print (print!) edition in February. Mywelshpool offers local listings for Welshpool which is overlooked by bigger media. The San Francisco Public Press also prints a paper (a broadsheet!) once a month. It has no ads, just a broad patchwork of foundation funding, contribution and single-copy sales. Thanks again to Jon for a great kickoff to our journalism seminar, and to all who attended and shared their experiences.

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