Government restrictions on council publications will give a much-needed boost to hyperlocal websites, according to NeighbourNet founder-director Sean Kelly.
‘Local authorities should be our biggest customer,’ says Kelly. ‘Over the last few years, they have turned into our biggest competitors. We are very hopeful that this is about to change.’
Kelly thinks that NeighbourNet – which he says is the UK’s only fully commercial hyperlocal network – would have grown much faster had it not been for the rise of council publications. He has no figures to back such a claim, but attributes the lower revenues generated by the NeighbourNet site in Hammersmith to the existence of a Hammersmith and Fulham Council freesheet which is delivered to 75,000 homes every fortnight.
Now, however, the communities minister Eric Pickles plans to curtail council publications, dubbing them ‘town hall Pravdas’. As a result, Hammersmith and Fulham Council has already decided to stop publishing its paper.
Kelly is hoping pick up some of the advertising custom, and is undeterred by the threat of restricted budgets. ‘We can say “how can we work with you to save you money?”‘ he says.
Over the ten years since NeighbourNet began, he has seen plenty of hyperlocals come and go. Many enthusiastic local community publishers have fallen by the wayside as their sites, having started without a clear business model, fail to generate revenue. ‘They do it for a couple of years, and then they think “why am I bothering?”‘
By contrast, NeighbourNet’s survival vindicates its businesslike approach. ‘From the very beginning we were always avowedly commercial,’ he says. ‘We feel we can do a lot in the community because we’ve got the resources to do it.’
And, now with media giants like Trinity Mirror try to jump on the hyperlocal bandwagon, another new trend in hyperlocalism is emerging. Can the conglomerates succeed where so many have failed? ‘It’s going to take a long time,’ says Kelly. ‘Whether they’ll have the patience, I don’t know’.
He doesn’t see how community-based hyperlocals responding to Trinity Mirror’s offer of a ‘partnership’ arrangement to feature their content on its new network of sites can benefit. ‘We don’t see the mileage in giving away the content to them for nothing,’ he says.