Some people going to the Res Publica/Carnegie UK Trust event ‘Future of the press: hyperlocal is it worth the hype’ might be new to the area. So I thought a rudimentary primer on the UK hyperlocal scene might be helpful. The following is informed by Talk About Local’s experience over several years working with people who run local websites all over the country. And running local websites myself. I can’t hope to cover everything below nor to have a consensus text – if people suggest good stuff in the comments I’ll update the post to reflect and turn it into an FAQ maybe.
What is this hyperlocal thing?
Normally, a ‘hyperlocal site’ means something on the web that talks about a place – sometimes big places like cities, sometimes tiny places like an individual street or hamlet. Hyperlocals can be websites, blogs, twitter accounts, Facebook pages and groups and networks like Nings and forums. Let’s call them websites for short here as an all encompassing term. Not all sites about places like the label ‘hyperlocal’ and indeed very few sites label themselves as such to their audience. Like ‘the press’ in the title of the event it’s more a metonym than a literal label.
What do these websites talk about?
Pretty well anything from hard core local politics, local news sites like WV11 & A Little Bit Of Stone doing traditional journalism, campaigns, events, local information and notices through to celebrating the good side of an area with pictures of local flowers and trees. Some websites have lots of comments, some don’t. What seems to be common is the creation of either bridging or bonding social capital in the local discussion. Given that there are practically no barriers to entry the sites can talk about whatever the person who creates it wants and for which they find an audience.
Where are they, how many?
There’s a map at Openlylocal originally set up by Chris Taggart, now maintained by Talk About Local. There’s about 700 sites in there. Our judgement is that the map catches less than half of the local websites. It seems that local sites are not evenly distributed, we observe few sites in Scotland, Wales (outside South Wales) and Northern Ireland. In England, many large and small towns have a section of a local paper website but nothing that seems like a hyperlocal.
Who runs them?
In the UK usually volunteers who enjoy providing a community service or people running a hobby business as a sole trader. We observe a recent upturn in a the number of people setting up or ramping up entrepreneurial local sites with a business focus. A small minority of local sites are run or owned by small limited companies and there are a couple of networks run by larger companies or organisations. Talk About Local’s observation is that people behind UK local sites are a broad spread of internet entrepreneurs, including large numbers of older people also active in their community in more traditional ways and an increasing number of journalists that used to work for traditional media. The majority seem to be run as not for profit sites by volunteers.
Local audience and impact
Successful hyperlocal sites are effective local communications media and achieve impact in the way any effective communications medium would. It’s common to see local sites building bridging and bonding social capital in local communities (see Halpern for definitions). In many cases they are the only up to the minute media for their immediate area – the websites can be more flexible than traditional media and have a more detailed focus on a smaller area. We also see sites convening people around a campaigning issue and supporting civic action.
Hyperlocals are cheap, quick and have a ‘self fulfilling’ audience. By ‘self-fulfilling’ audience I mean that if the site is about local civic issues or a local festival it usually reaches the audience the author wants to. If the site finds it impossible to reach the target audience it tends to stop publishing or change tack. If the site is non-commercial then it doesn’t need to reach ever large audiences for their own sake, something that media commentators occasionally struggle with.
I bumped into a person who is turned out was active in Isle of Wight and national politics – he said ‘Every councillor on the Island reads On The Wight/Ventnor blog – they may not admit it but it’s the first place they go.’
How long have they been around
There are still some sites running from the 1990s but the majority have been set up in the last 5-10 years. The recent wave of consumer focused web services have made it much easier to set up a good looking website that can grow with your skills and needs using wordpress.com or blogger, more recently Twitter and a Facebook page.
How big are they?
Some are very big indeed – Sheffield Forum has 161,000 members and 6.5 million posts in a city of 450,000 people. But it’s all relative – Parwich.org in rural Derbyshire will produce three or more posts daily and 400 page views a day in a village of 500 people. Some sites are tiny but serve a purpose as a distributor of local information and bringing internet visibility to information that otherwise circulates on paper.
How sustainable are they?
The business-run sites are sustainable in the normal way any business is sustainable. Volunteer run services are sustainable if they provide community value and inspire new volunteers as many British community institutions show: The Scouts, Guides, lay Magistracy, WI, most Churches etc. If you have volunteer labour, most sites cost less to run for a year than a tank of diesel for the community minibus. However volunteer services come and go to some extent. It’s quite normal for sites to take a holiday for a few months or a year sometimes as they transit from one volunteer to another as someone runs out of time.
Are they competition for local newspapers?
The vast majority of sites are not competition for local papers and should have a good symbiotic relationship with them, filling in gaps that the papers can’t afford to cover. Talk About Local worked with Trinity Mirror to help them arrive at a terms of trade for working with local independent websites. A small number of sites are editorial competition for local papers, delivering a vibrant punchy news service. However, they rarely actually appropriate significant ad revenue from a local paper.
Will they replace local papers?
Only ‘papers’ can replace ‘papers’ like for like. The way papers are – their look, feel, content etc and often their websites is heavily shaped by over a hundred years of production technologies, working practices and relations with local advertisers and communicators such as PRs and politicians. Local websites haven’t been exposed to all this. Grassroots websites can come at this orthogonally and produce something different that borrows the best bits or that look completely different in niches that are uneconomic. Hyperlocal websites that try to imitate many aspects of a local paper often find it hard to do so.
Clearly, thousands of people publishing locally using modern media will have an important part to play in future news ecologies. But as hyperlocals are grass roots, bottom up often with non-commercial motivation or pressures they will be gloriously messy and not provide a neat universal solution. A bit like when news sheets started appearing hundreds of years ago. This is of course a quandry for policy makers.
Is anyone making money out of this?
There are a number of sites set up on a commercial basis that do appear to be successful small businesses (but it isn’t clear how much). Sites that employ one or two people full time are the exception. There is normally some cross subsidy from somewhere else such as say a web business. But Talk About Local is encountering, slowly more and more people running sites as a business. One scenario we see quite often is a site set up on a volunteer or hobby basis by one or two individuals who then seek to earn a living from it when the site becomes successful and takes up a lot of their time. However, the skills that make a good volunteer site aren’t normally the ones required to raise revenue by selling products and services to keep the site going. So few people find it easy.
What does big media make of it all?
There have been a number of interventions by big media companies in different aspects of the hyperlocal web market. It’s not too much of a generalisation to say that many of them see the social/editorial value of local websites run by local people, but have trouble making it pay consistently. DMGT, GNM, RIghtmove, BBC, Channel4, STV, Sky, Trinity Mirror have all tried different models.
Where can I meet these hyperlocal people?
Talk About Local has run since 2009 annual ‘unconferences’ that bring together up to 100 people who run local sites – the blog post for TAL13 links out to other conferences. There is a mutual support network ‘The Hyperlocal Alliance‘ that has a private discussion space. And a new Google+ group ‘Hyperlocal UK‘.
Cross over to local TV?
Most local web people look at local TV with some bewilderment. If it’s hard enough to make a website or a newspaper pay, where will the revenue come from to support the substantial costs of regulated television? And indeed why not use the internet to distribute video. I gave evidence to the Shott Review on these lines. During the debate on local TV the Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt commented on one of my blog posts (his civil servants said it was him) that he needed to understand hyperlocal more.
What technology do people use?
Self hosted wordpress.org sites seem to predominate, with many wordpress.com sites and some blogger with more advanced sites in Drupal. There are still plenty of people with older sites using older CMS’s or publishing tools. Despite its limitations, Facebook is popular – it’s a very fast way to reach a local audience but it doesn’t show up in external search and is hard to handle older posts. And you are at the whim of Facebook’s updates such as the recent problems with Pages. Facebook is still blocked by many conservative employers who form part of the audience for a local site such as the police and local government.
All these platforms can be run very cheaply indeed or even for free. For hobby sites the cash cost of running the site is much cheaper than many hobbies, such as going to the football.
The current wave of searches from mobiles should offer new opportunities to hyperlocals as they produce content tightly tied to place. If content is geotagged it should be well suited to mobiles. The NESTA Destination Local project is funding hyperlocals to experiment with geo-location. (NESTA is a client of Talk About Local).
Party politics of hyperlocal media
There aren’t any really. The Conservative manifesto had an explicit promise of local tv stations in it which carried through into coalition government. This was derived from a reading of some work by Roger Parry in 2009 – who saw an explicitly multi-media future for local media – Local Media Companies who would use all media to raise revenue. But of course the government had no regulatory tools to make newspapers or web companies come into being – its only lever is in spectrum.
The Labour Party when in government ran an Independently Financed News Consortium process to tackle some of the issues in local media decline. I was one of the judges. It was fascinating to provoke the media groups to think harder about the web locally and the winners responded well. This process was halted at the 2010 election – see above.
I haven’t spotted a distinctively Lib Dem policy on local media – advice welcome in comments.
There isn’t any really other than generic law. Bespoke regulation of small independent outlets in an emerging market would fail any reasonable proportionality test. Damian Radcliffe argues the case well in a blog post.
Research and academic work
This is a new area but research is emerging. The Creative Citizens consortium led by Prof. Ian Hargreaves at Cardiff funded by the AHRC is the leading research group currently working in the area (Talk About Local is the industry member). Dave Harte of BCU has produced original statistical work that has been published by OFCOM in its annual Communications Review. The Creative Citizens work is supported by staff at Cardiff involved in the new Centre for Community Journalism.
NESTA’s Destination Local programme is funding 10 hyperlocal sites to develop in particular new business models and location aware content.
As a scene setter NESTA produced a good research piece with Damian Radcliffe.
Networked Neighbourhoods has produced some good industry research on user-views of local discussion led sites – that shows high levels of trust and engagement by people who use the sites. There has been some work by Goldsmiths. Staffordshire University is working on producing a range of hyperlocal sites with its students. Carnegie UK Trust have recently launched their Neighbourhood News project ‘a £50,000 competition to improve local news reporting’.
The Archers ran for some time a mock hyperlocal site written in the voice of Jennifer Aldridge promoting local services and events in Ambridge. The site ran on the BBC CMS but had its own domain and was designed to look like a basic Typepad site using bad clipart and with spelling mistakes. The producer’s article also showed how much the team draw on rural websites for inspiration for the show. The site closed due to the script writing demands of the ‘Extra’ shows.
Chistopher Fowler’s Bryant and May mystery books latterly set in Kings Cross, London featured briefly a local website run by a puritan environmental fanatic who ran around wearing antlers as Herne the Hunter to scare off property developers. I run the Kings Cross Environment website that campaigns on planning issues and I know Christopher reads it occasionally.
[Publishing note – will be adding in more links as I have time]
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