Why "Hyperlocal" Might Not Be the Future for Journalism

One of the RAF's new Chinook Mk3s on a training flight above the snow at Odiham, January 13, 2010 [Confused as to why this photo has no relevance to the story below? Click HERE.]

I'm hearing excellent reports of the New Ways to Make Journalism Pay conference organised by the NUJ's London Freelance Branch (of which, in the interests of disclosure, I should point out I'm a member; and a member of the Branch committee - though I had nothing to do with the conference so am not claiming any credit for its success). Hopefully this might help prove that the NUJ isn't the head-in-sand dinosaur some commentators assume it to be; it's very much an organisation that is driven by its members, and those members, right now, want to know what they can do, pro-actively, to help secure their livelihoods. One thing that concerns me, though, is the way the term "hyperlocal" seems to be being unquestioningly transplanted from the theoretical to the practical. I'm worried about this because I'm not sure it's a concept that has as much relevance in the UK as it seems to have in the US, and therefore may not be a useful tool for British journalists to use when trying to map out a new way forward in a changing world. So here's a few thoughts I'd like to throw out, in the hope that readers can help me see the light.

My (possibly flawed) understanding of the term is that it refers to journalism that applies to a very localised area, so it chimes in with another trope of the debate about how to make money from journalism in that the kind of sites that stand a chance in future are those where the reporting and advertising is relevant to a niche (geographical, this time, rather than to do with subject area). In a presentation to his students in New York late last year, Jeff Jarvis talked about hyperlocal news sites he is aware of in the US that generate in excess of $200,000 per year in ad revenue - and this clearly turns the term "hyperlocal" from being a theoretical proposition to an exciting new business model. But while I can see how you might possibly be able to make $200,000 p/a in advertising if your hyperlocal niche was a few blocks in Brooklyn or a city of 100,000 in California, I'm at a loss as to how this concept could apply to a different kind of area.

I live in a small market town far enough from London to not be a suburb, within 20 minutes' drive of two other cities and 40 minutes of several more. The population is around 15,000, maybe rising to 25,000 if you take in surrounding villages but spread the geographical definition of "hyperlocal" to something like a 50-100 square mile area. This neighbourhood presently supports two local newspapers, both with staffs of around half a dozen, both part of major local news chains which will benefit from central office deal-making when it comes to securing ads from the biggest firms in the area.

I may not be the most entrepreneurial of journalists (as a freelance I have to know all about selling myself and my work: but I accept that I've restricted myself to the one business propostion - approaching publishers to get them to pay me a fee for a piece, which they then will have to work out how to monetise) but I do know from a little bit of experience trying to sell advertising in the local cricket club's yearbook how hard it would be for any new, unproven local publication to tap in to the advertising budgets of the bigger and deeper-pocketed companies in the area. The largest shop in the town, Tesco, doesn't have anyone on site who is allowed to take decisions about advertising, so you have to go to an office elsewhere, who in turn aren't interested in dealing with very small, local, community-oriented publications or new startups; and the biggest employer in the town took three months to decide to purchase an ad, and did so via their charitable outreach programme, which is headquartered in another office in another part of the country. These are the companies that have the biggest financial clout in the area, whose decisions have the most impact on the populace in terms of expansion or contraction affecting the local workforce; yet despite that local impact their PR concerns are national, and they have little inclination, or time, and don't choose to allocate the relevant staffing resources, to ensure they can take small-scale local decisions about things like advertising spend. Their loss, I'm sure - but a huge practical obstacle for anyone considering producing an ad-supported product for the locality. 

What about the non-chain, local concerns? Well, while I appreciate that a regularly updated local news publication is a different proposition to an annual cricket club yearbook, there are still benefits in being associated with the latter - the several hundred people involved in the club, either as players or parents and relatives of players, would in the main choose to use businesses who had shown their support for the club by buying ads in the yearbook rather than rival businesses who didn't (I've personally allocated spending in excess of £1000 differently for precisely this reason), so in some respects it may well be better business than advertising in a news outlet. Yet it was tough to sell to them, too - and took hours of legwork, knocking on doors, making phone calls, often designing ads for businesses to make it as easy as possible for them to say "yes" and spend what were very small sums (the cheapest, and most popular, ad cost £65 for six-month visibility in a booklet used as a season-long reference). Since I was involved in this, two years ago, the progress of the local economy has been in step with the national and international pictures: one-way in the wrong direction. Businesses are closing down in the area, and nobody has money to spare on experimental, unproven endeavours.

Maybe if one of the local papers closed and its staff opted to carry on independently online they may have some luck in persuading local businesses to transfer ads to a "hyperlocal" website, but I can't see how anyone else could possibly make this work in a way that was sustainable and could support even a one-person operation. (My feeling is that getting the advertising in on an ongoing basis would be a full-time job, and while doing the journalism may not necessarily be, you'd need more than one person to make this work, at least during the startup phase.) I also question whether there is enough potential advertising spend in the locality to fund any local news at all without the economies of scale and (presumably) chain-wide, national deal-making that companies such as Archant must do in order to get the likes of Tesco to advertise their local branches in those titles.

To me, "hyperlocal" sounds like a good fit for densely populated urban environments, but for elsewhere, it's problematic. It also, regardless of the nature of the locality served, feels like something that is only going to be a viable option for extant local newspaper staff who are made redundant and/or whose titles close down entirely, who therefore have proven their value to the local community (both readers and businesses) over a period of years and will be given some time and goodwill to get their website up and running and generating page views, click-throughs and demonstrable benefit to advertisers. I can't see how it can be a viable business for a new startup, or even for a work-from-home freelance looking to try to get a foot in the door as other outlets for their work dry up. But I may well be misinterpreting the concept, or being unnecessarily cynical about its potential. I'd welcome clarification and correction, because I want to believe in as many possible futures for journalism as I can.


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