High hopes for hyperlocal media

My former employer the Northampton Chronicle & Echo announced earlier this month that it would be switching from a daily to a weekly newspaper and developing its online and tablet outputs.

The move will see the loss of several editorial staff, many of them my friends and former colleagues.

The swift transformation, which will happen in under two months, is part of a Johnston Press strategy to cut costs whilst also meeting the needs of the modern consumer.

The past two weeks I have been receiving phone calls, texts and Facebook messages from reporters and department editors at the Chron asking for my advice. My former colleagues, many of whom are having to reapply for their jobs, have been after interview tips or seeking information on how to make money in the world of self-employment.

I left the newspaper, and my role as features editor, three years ago to undertake PhD research in local newspaper websites. In particular I have been studying audience participation and its civic and economic impact.

Leaving a full time salary to become a student once more meant I had to think of innovate ways to make enough money to continue to pay my mortgage. Over the past three years I have worked as a cycling instructor, meetings minute taker, NCTJ exam marker, freelance journalist, and lecturer, whilst also making money doing freelance PR work for a number of charities and businesses.

Hence my former colleagues wanted advice on the latest trends in local newspaper websites and also, conversely, advice on life after local newspapers.

The one word which keeps popping out of my mouth is ‘hyperlocal’. If local newspapers are cutting staff and yet expecting them to provide multimedia content for print, web and tablet formats then it is inevitable that they will only be scratching the surface of local news. There will be a vacuum of local news, investigations and information and instead even more of a focus on top lines, regurgitated press releases and superficial stories whose sole purpose will be to attract lots of website hits.

The picture being painted may seem like a very sorry state of affairs for local news, but in reality it is a fantastic opportunity. If local newspapers aren’t doing their job properly then there is a niche to be exploited.

The automatic response from journalists is that “you can’t make money online” but I have to agree with the author of Entrepreneurial Journalism Mark Briggs and say that this is absolute rubbish.

Conglomerate publishers like Johnston Press with millions of pounds worth of debts and ridiculously high profit margins,  might not be able to make enough money online but that doesn’t mean nobody can. In the online arena the ‘economies of scale’ mantra does not necessarily apply.

My own PhD research has revealed that the very thing holding back local journalists from truly engaging with their audiences is the restrictions placed upon them by their publishing companies who are too cautious, slow and inept, to adapt.

 In fact the biggest businesses online have grown out of the hard work of innovative individuals and this is continuing to be the case.

So what advice do I give to local journalists facing redundancy? Start a hyperlocal website. There is a market for it especially if local newspapers are failing to provide decent coverage for their area. There is a growing online audience and the overheads and start up costs are virtually nil. However you do need to be prepared to work for free in the beginning, you do have to have some business sense and you need to be able to think beyond display/classified adverting models.

My advice would be to spot an area of coverage that the local newspaper will no longer be providing in enough depth be it geographic or topical. Perhaps it is education, or entertainment or village news.

Hyperlocal websites to date have been a mixture of successes and failures, particularly when key people move on, but if you look at what is happening in America it is possible to believe that they have a profitable future.

Indeed there is now start-up funding in the UK from NESTA to help test and develop hyperlocal media services. Applicants can apply for up to £50,000 as part of the Destination Local scheme.

Journalists are the very people who should be driving these projects as they know their communities and have the skills to provide accurate, fair and authoritative news. But similarly journalists need to step outside their corporate comfort zones and collaborate with commercial and technical partners in order to create sustainable digital news platforms.

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9 comments

  1. This is interesting, I run a hyperlocal website within the Chron patch http://www.aboutmyarea.co.uk/nn12 this is a business, its a news portal, its well received, its busy and is effectively run as a daily online news portal.

    Might well be a good idea for some of the Chron people to have a look at, its a franchise model, but the good thing about that is that there is a revenue stream.

    If anyone wants to find out more, get in touch.

    • Thanks James. I think the real issue is that many journalists can’t afford to take a leap of faith because they rely on a regular salary to pay the mortgage so they would rather fight to keep their jobs than take a risk with something new, especially if both partners work for the same news organisation which is often the case.

  2. I agree with everything your’e saying here, Lily. This is the feedback I’ve received from grassroots level – and many communities already have successful newsletters, demonstrating a need for real, local news.

  3. Yes, there’s certainly a need for innovation in the news business. Some might argue that what we’re witnessing in the UK regional press is a textbook example of Schumpeteresque creative distruction. Having said,that, it’s also clear (as you point out) that while starting up an online news enterprise might be pretty straightforward, keeping it up has proved to be a great deal more tricky. I’d certainly be keen to hear more about your research into this area and also happy to share what we’ve been finding through the MADE (Media And Digital Enterprise) Project, in general, and from the MADE: UK Startup Weekend in June, in particular: http://uclanmade.blogspot.co.uk. [BTW:Applications close 18 May]

    • Thanks for your comment Francois. My research is focusing on established mainstream newspaper websites although obviously it has enabled me to reflect a little upon independent news websites. I would certainly be interested in further research on hyperlocal websites though once I have completed my PhD thesis which will hopefully be this summer.

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