Whither hyperlocal? Still in search of sustainability

During this period of disruption and transition, we journalists wring our hands about any number of things, and I suppose the thing I do genuinely worry about is local news. I’m not alone, and it’s spawned a huge number of hyperlocal experiments. At the risk of sounding pessimistic, most of these experiments have failed to develop into sustainable models for the future. At SXSW in the US, they had a panel looking called the “Hyperlocal Hoax: Where’s the Holy Grail?” The intro to the panel said:

Over the last decade, so called “Hyperlocal” websites, apps and services have been “the next big thing.” Now quick: Name one super-successful company in that space. Now name ten in the graveyard.

The effort to find the model continues and so does the frustration at the elusiveness of one. Here in the UK, where I sit, Marc Reeves asked: Why have Birmingham’s hyperlocal bloggers failed to deliver? The motivation was similar to other projects:

The democratic deficit left behind as papers and TV retreated from the territory marked ‘holding power to account’ could be filled – it was hoped – by a growing band of independent, socially active and civic-minded citizens who could use their digital skills to create news and information services for their neighbourhoods.

But five years later, “(m)any of the early sites have withered on the vine” and “most of the true hyperlocal, neighbourhood, blogs seem to run out of steam”. Reeves still has hope that as local media in the UK also continue to whither that “the opportunity for hyperlocals will surely get larger”. 

These blogging projects were definitely on the smaller end of the hyperlocal spectrum, but even larger networks are struggling. In an interview for Street Fight Mag, US hyperlocal project EveryBlock president Brian Addison probably put it best:

We’re operating in a space that excites a lot of people but there’s so much dust that needs to be settled. There’s so much uncertainty around sustainable business models and who’s going to emerge as a leader…

For those not familiar with EveryBlock, it is data-driven aggregator of local information.in several large cities across the US. One of the earliest journo-programmers Adrian Holovaty led its creation using Knight Foundation funding, and team then sold it to MSNBC.com in 2009

When asked whether the aggregator would be moving into original content, Addison said:

My strong hunch would be no, largely because I think the economics of that model are broken. That’s pretty easy to see.

What is working? 

First I think it’s important to draw some distinctions between the issues with local media in the US and UK. The markets are very different. The regional (local) media has been much harder hit in the UK than in the US. In the UK, the national media has suffered cuts, but we still haven’t seen the closures, the shifts from daily to weekly and the deep cuts that the regional and local media has. 

In the US, big city metros have been hit hardest while local media, mid-size and smaller newspapers are faring better. US digital advertising analyst Gordon Borrell predicted that newspaper advertising would actually increase next year, 2013. However, the prediction of growth was largely down to growth by small papers.  At Street Fight Mag, Alex Salkever said:

Which is why I actually think Borrell is onto something. We all know that small papers have suffered far less than major metros in the advertising bloodbath. And talk to anyone in a small town and these papers continue to have tremendous relevance.

Salkever thought that it wasn’t just the relevance to local audiences that is helping these small newspapers but also their more direct relationship to advertisers. 

That’s what is working and what isn’t in terms of traditional media, but what about this new breed of local news providers? In the US, J-Lab funded more than 55 ‘New Voice’  hyperlocal projects beginning in 2005. In 2010, it was time to take stock and look at what worked and what didn’t work. What didn’t work? 

One of our biggest learning curves is this: It doesn’t pay to train whole classes of ‘citizen’ journalists. While you’ll be doing wonders for advancing digital media skills in your community, you won’t end up with a reliable corps of contributors for your news site. Ordinary citizens, armed with good intentions, are just too busy.

Citizen journalism turns out to be a high-churn, high-touch enterprise – one that requires a full-time community manager.

In some ways, this is probably why the hyperlocal blogs in Birmingham didn’t work. Feeding a blog is hard work, which I know only too well. The study has 10 takeaways, and I’l leave you to follow the link above to check them all out. They highlighted that:

• “Engagement, not just content, is key.”
• The passion of the founders was key to success.
• “Community news sites are not a business yet. Income from grants, ads, events and other things falls short, in most cases, of paying staff salaries and operating expenses.”

In the UK, Nesta released a report last year, Here and Now, UK hyperlocal media today (PDF), authored by Damian Radcliffe. The report was incredibly useful in that it tackled the big challenges that local media is facing, both for traditional news organisations and new forms of hyperlocal media. He tackled the issues of sustainability and scalability head-on. He said:

Fundamental questions remain about the financial sustainability of the sector, and whether hyperlocal media can benefit from the spread of technology or will get lost in an increasingly noisy digital space.

To sum up the report, he said that there is “no silver bullet for making hyperlocal work”. 

I’d love to end this post with some pithy prescription for success, but that’s just not where we’re at with the disruption of local media and the development of new models. If there was one model that I think needs more exploration is is an idea that Ken Sands told me a few years back. Ken is the editor of Bloomberg Government now, but almost a decade ago, he was the head of web operations in Spokane Washington. He launched an early blogging network at a newspaper. He suggested that a winning combination was place and passion, the intersection of location and focused subjects. I am sure that one of the many people working on hyperlocal projects is already on it. 

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