UK hyperlocals suffer from grantfunders’ fixation on innovation

UK hyperlocals suffer from grantfunders' fixation on innovation

Comment by Alex Klaushofer.

Earlier this month, the lottery-funded charity Nesta announced the successful bidders for its new grant programme Destination Local. Ten winners emerged out of the 165 hyperlocal projects who applied for funds, including Welsh language paper Papur Dre and The Kentishtowner, an online north London magazine. Each project will receive up to £50,000 to develop and test prototypes for new technology platforms, especially mobile devices, thus contributing to the new generation of hyperlocal media services.

This is undeniably good news. The burgeoning of the hyperlocal sector in recent years clearly demonstrates the appetite of both its readers and new breed of publisher-editors for in-depth, engaged news and information for local communities. But the sector has been stymied by the lack of a revenue model, with profitable operations such as the Filton Voice very much the exception, while others, such as the Saddleworth News, simply die of starvation. Meanwhile, with the Guardian giving up on its own hyperlocal experiment, big media organisations are faring no better.

In the middle are the majority of hyperlocals – community projects often very successful in editorial terms and much-loved by their readers, but sustained largely by the goodwill and passion of those who run them. For now. Consequently, most face a very uncertain future.

The UK is behind the States in this respect. With leading funders such as the Knight Foundation, the US not-for-profit sector has invested over a billion dollars in quality journalism over the past decade.

But with its marked focus on innovation, the Nesta grant programme follows in the footsteps of the well-established UK lottery tradition of supporting the new at the expense of the simply good. I know this, because for years I covered the lottery and funding worlds, often speaking to grant applicants and the frustrated heads of small charities and community groups. A clear pattern emerged from their attempts to secure funding: with continual pressure to show that projects were ‘innovative’, a few skewed their work towards the obviously ‘new’. But the overall result was that services of proven benefit to the community – even those that had been ‘new’ five years ago – often fell by the wayside, as the funding machine rolled on to support the next shiny new idea.

This potted history of the British grant-funding scene may hold a lesson for community-focused media start-ups. For, out of the YouTube pitches thoughtfully collated by Nesta to add to the growing body of emerging practice, it is clear that some deserving projects never stood a chance of funding because of the programme’s focus on technological innovation. Take the case of the award-winning Ventnor Blog, for example. Despite establishing itself at the heart of the community, the six-year-old site still does not provide its mid-career husband-and-wife team with a viable living.

Or take Port Talbot Magnet – not, as far as I know, an applicant for Nesta funding – effectively surviving off the PhD funding of one of the cooperative’s members. In an interview with the Online Journalism Blog, Rachel Howells cites the biggest challenge to date as the lack of funding; not one of the seven directors are in a position to give the website the time it needs to develop and become sustainable.

Perhaps we should admit that, for once, our American cousins have the longer view.

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