Friday saw a strange phenonmenon in Media Land: the launch of seven hyperlocal newspapers across south London. The weekly newspaper South London Press, now nearly a hundred and fifty years old, is printing seven editions specific to particular areas. Streatham, Brixton, Wimbledon, Wandsworth, Dulwich, Deptford & New Cross and Forest Hill & Sydenham are to get their own papers, while a stand-alone edition will continue to be sold in areas without hyperlocal editions. All have a cover price of 50p.
Given that local papers have long been at the sharp end of the crisis in journalism, can such a move be successful? Proprietor Sir Ray Tindle, the eighty-something owner of over 200 local papers, is well-known for his upbeat attitude to the difficulties of local journalism. His papers have continued to thrive during the downturn, and in June 2011 he launched fortnightly hyperlocal The Chingford Times, which is reportedly doing well.
The key to success is, apparently, lies in a hyperlocal approach to news that is rooted in old-fashioned journalistic values rather than a trend emerging out of the digital revolution. When taking over the failing Tenby Observer, Sir Ray’s first move was to reverse a decision to extend coverage to several towns. Every line of every story must relate to Tenby, he instructed: ‘A cat must not have kittens in Tenby unless it’s covered in the Observer’.
Yet coverage at this level of detail is labour-intensive and so costly. It is not clear whether any more staff have been taken on at the South London Press, but Sir Ray’s comments, quoted by the Press Gazette, will speak volumes to anyone who has worked in a newsroom during these difficult times: ‘I stood up last Friday afternoon and asked if they could do it in 14 days. Somebody whispered to me, ‘you’re asking them to do six new paid-for papers in six working days’, and I said, “these people can do it”.’
At the same time, in the responses posted to news of the launch, experts including James Hatts, veteran hyperlocal editor of SE1, observe that the main edition of South London Press has been thin on content for some time.
A new crop of print hyperlocals launched by lone operators suggest that the South London Press may be missing another key ingredient to success. In founding the filtonvoice, a monthly newsy magazine serving an area of Bristol, Richard Coulter says that rootedness in the community is essential: ‘You have to live in the neighbourhood to do this properly. I don’t think you could do it remotely,’ he says. The magazine has been an immediate success with readers, both in terms of editorial and advertising, and was profitable from Issue One.
Between Sydenham and Streatham, two of the areas served by the new South London Press hyperlocals, lies Crystal Palace, also with its monthly lifestyle magazine The Transmitter. Printed on high-quality paper, full of photos with local people and places and contributions by residents, the publication oozes the kind of celebratory granularity that digital hyperlocals have developed so well.
Publisher-editor Andy Pontin admits that the magazine makes a small loss, but adds that this situation could be quite easily changed: ‘My personal issue is that I have a full time job and four kids, so how I manage my time is to jettison any attempt to get advertising in order to focus what little time I have on the magazine editorial and photography, which is my hobby,’ he says. ‘If I, or someone on a commission basis, spent more time trying to get ads, then I am 99% positive it would be in profit.’
Time will tell whether the new generation of South London Press hyperlocals can combine the virtues of old-fashioned journalism with the allure of organically-grown publications.