Hyperlocal Hopes May Be Blunted By Revenue Realities In 2010

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The promise for hyperlocal’s place in UK news is there, the boundless optimism is not in doubt and there’s even hints of a local business model emerging. But the delivery of quality post-code level news across most of the country still a long way off, and sustainable revenues and — dare we say it — profits are even further.

There wasn’t much at the AOP’s Microlocal Forum on Wednesday to suggest that either semi-amateur, entrepreneur-led start-ups or big-league newspaper publishers will make real successes of hyperlocal in 2010. But that won’t stop them from trying…

— Birmingham City University media academic Paul Bradshaw, also co-founder of the DIY muck-raking site Help Me Investigate, said local sites should avoid being “handicapped” by an old-media, mass-reach-chasing ad model and instead sell products and services and organise events. “Are we expecting margins online that are coloured by our print experience? Why are we expecting to make as much money?”

— As I’ve said before, local grassroots news businesses need partnerships to survive: whether it’s via a nation-wide movement — through groups like Talk About Local — or through relationships with mainstream publishers. But Bradshaw warns that big media schemes aiming to work with local bloggers — like ITN’s proposed post-2012 part-publicly funded consortia — were considered by bloggers to be “partnerships on someone else’s terms”. Exactly how bloggers could be involved in the IFNC set-up is yet to be clear by any of the potential partners.

— And if you’re going to ask Newsquest to hear your hyperlocal partnership proposition, you better have a good proposition. The company’s digital managing director Roger Green spoke with refreshing honesty by saying he’s sick of upstart local businesses — or “zero-revenue publishers” as he calls them — looking for a free ride from the Gannett (NYSE: GCI) owned publisher’s commercial mass. “You should sit in on some of the joke meetings I’ve been in with with people from no-name start-ups who say we should help them start their business and pay them for the privilege… I’m glad bloggers are starting to suffer from this sort of thing.” He’s open to “reasonable” offers, but warns hyperlocal start-ups that they should either “work with us or take us on“.

— David Higgerson, head of multimedia at Trinity Mirror (LSE: TNI) Regionals, has a more measured view. As he told me in an interview afterwards, Trinity journalists have made overtures to local bloggers to build relationships — he admits reporters have been guilty of using bloggers’ stories without attribution (it happens in reverse too, of course) — and he’s thinking of ways to make relationships more concrete. Does Trinity make any money from its own hyperlocal projects such as the one in Teesside? Yes — it’s not much — but Higgerson says it reaches the kind of advertisers that regional sites can’t. Here’s the audio:

Public money could play a role: ITN, Press Association, Trinity Mirror, Ten Alps and all the other companies that have signaled their interest in running part-publicly-funded news consortia will be keen to involve grassroots news sites as part of the regional publishing mix — as per the original blueprint in Digital Britain — but there are more ifs and maybes surrounding that than certainties and the project won’t be fully up and running until 2012.

In short, 2010 will not be the year of hyperlocal — these are the foothills, the beginnings of localised online publishing. But the signs are auspicious: increasing levels of online literacy and broadband connections mixed with more inevitable local newspaper closures mean it’s natural that readers — and advertisers — will shift to new outlets. Whether anyone will be making a real living from it — as a mainstream publisher or a start-up — seems unlikely in the near future…

3 Comments

Patrick Smith

Will, Sarah, thanks for the comments, I think you both raise a central point: that local online quality publishing can happen without everybody, or anyone, working full-time on it or getting rich. The cost base is nil (or pretty close to it) and volunteers can create sites that equal the encumbent “professional” sites in the area, which is what TAL is helping to do.
From an overall digital economy point of view, I was measuring whether the local news/information start-up space would make a big impact next year, compared to existing models – to which I still think the answer is probably not (yet). But that’s not to say that more and more people aren’t doing it, and doing it well.

On the ‘muck-raking’ point about Help Me Investigate, which some people have flagged this up as a pejorative term (http://twitter.com/louisebolotin/statuses/6759535696). I mean it in the best sense of investigative journalism, where reporters uncover facts about governments and official bodies and generally stick their noses where they are not wanted in the public interest (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muckraker). Apparently this has a different meaning in the UK than the US, where it originates.

Sarah Hartley

Hi Patrick, good write up from yesterday’s event although there’s just one thing I’d add. As I said in my overview to the forum, there are opportunities here for mainstream publishers and others to collaborate but it’s important to take into account the differing motivations.

Life isn’t about money for everyone, life isn’t about journalism for everyone either.

Many of the hyperlocal sites exist for community reasons and the publishing of information is not the end result, change, improvement, engagement etc.is – their hopes have little, or nothing, to do with the media’s revenue streams.

williamperrin

‘Hopes will only be blunted’ as you put it, if you start off with unrealistic expectations of revenue for UK hyperlocal sites. It was a sober look at the revenue realities in 2008 that took me down the public service route with Talk About Local with 4IP, SWM and AWM – not an ad selling direction.

We can build a business with Talk About Local providing consultancy services (there are plenty of people who need them) but the websites we help people create are a public service play on the ground. The cash costs are practically nil to run a good community site, providing news, information and events that the local paper doesn’t cover.

If you find the right people to write as volunteers, often passionate community activists then a good hyperlocal media operation can exists on very small or no revenues – as many do across the country.

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