New Model Journalism

Tracking the media-funding revolution

Archive for the ‘Local/hyperlocal’ Category

Patch takes on the ‘hood’

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Case study by Tim Dawson.

When Alex Trebek, the host of US tv show Jeopardy fell chasing a burglar last week he gave one of their biggest stories of the year.  The San Francisco site of the national hyperlocal news network got the story.  News of the silver-haired 71 year old taking up chase and then snapping his Achilles tendon made newspapers across the States, most of whom credited Patch.

Scanning the cuttings over the past few months, it is curious, however, that the 800 or so sites that make up the Patch network have not broken more big stories.  With rumours that revenue from Patch is unimpressive, it begs the question, is the multi-million dollars that are being invested in Patch annually money well-spent on the part of owners AOL?

Patch was formed in 2007 by Tim Armstrong, who had been an ad executive at Google.  He was inspired by his frustration that he could not find volunteer opportunities in his area.  His local paper rejected his suggestion of a hyper-local news site, so he set about creating one himself.  In 2009 he sold the company to AOL for around $7m, and in the process Armstrong became AOL’s chief executive.

Today the company employs hundreds of local editors, each running a community-specific site.  They earn between $38,000 and $45,000 for which they are expected to file around five stories a day from home.  A report in the New York Times, however, suggested that at the start of 2011, each story was averaging only 100 views a day.   A story that clocked up 500 views was considered a ‘wild success’.  One ratings agency puts Patch’s annual unique visitors at three million – a significant rise on the previous year, however.

The quality of the sites is variable.  Some carry genuinely meaty stories.  Others read like they have been filled in a hurry to make up the numbers.  Most sites are based on relatively prosperous towns, rather than major urban areas, the idea being that these will be more attractive to advertisers. 

Bill Lynch, the editor in chief of the Sonoma Index-Tribune, a biweekly paper in California, told The New York Times that he doubted whether many people in his town had even heard of Patch. 

In 2010 AOL is understood to have invested $50m in Patch and it has yet to release figures showing revenue.  The Observer recently reported, however, that: “leaked accounts from California show early struggles availing very little, if not almost no, (revenue)”.

Perhaps if a few more celebrities suffer injuries in sight of Patch reporters, the sites will start to generate the attention and critical mass that it needs.  Until then, the jury remains out on the economics of nationally co-ordinated hyperlocal sites.

Written by Tim Dawson

August 1st, 2011 at 8:48 am

News from your street served up by a ‘publishing visionary’

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Case study by Tim Dawson.

Postcodegazette’s aim is to create a virtual newspaper for every street in Britain.  Using mobile technology to map the location of its audience, it focuses on news so local that readers are interested in cars being scratched and the exam results of neighbours’ children.

Users of the service – which is being piloted in Sheffield, and has minimal content in some other UK locations – either enter their postcode, or allow the inbuilt GPS in mobile devices to tell the service where they are.  This allows Postcodegazette to serve them up with a diet of ultra-local stories.   “The list of stories will be slightly different from street to street, focussing on what has happened nearest to you”, promises managing director Chris McCormack.

Content will be provided by paid local ‘publishers’.  They receive £50 per week, for which they are expected to file 15 stories a week.  As the business develops, they will also be offered a share of local advertising spend.  Drawn from ‘interested local people’ such as parish councillors, community activists and potentially students, they are offered informal training in the practice and pitfalls of journalism.  A full time staff of between 15 and 20 people, many of them trained and experienced journalists, vet all copy post publication, as well as advising on potentially contentious stories before publication.

Revenue is expected to come from advertising – but again the model is hyper-local and immediate.  “It will be possible for a business to advertise to just a few streets – or just a few hours for as little as £1”, says McCormack.  He cites the example of a sandwich bar that wants to get rid of excess stock in the afternoon as the kind of opportunity where Postcodegazette will provide an unique service.

The initiative is the brainchild of Vitek Tracz, a serial publishing entrepreneur who, two years ago sold his BioMed Central publications to Springer for an undisclosed sum, thought to be in the region of $50 million.  He also owns the Faculty of 1000, which aims to become ‘the Facebook of science’ as well as Telmap which makes smart phone applications to connect users to local businesses.  McCormack comes to the company after a career which started in local newspapers.  He was most recently the ‘head of digital’ at the Press Association and oversaw the news agency’s coverage of the most recent general election.

For the moment, content is available on the web as well as on mobile devices – although McCormack anticipates that the emphasis will increasingly shift towards the latter.  He expects to need 80 to 90 publishers in every major town for the service to work although for the moment, while he is interested to hear from potential applicants, most of the UK is likely to be in the ‘pending tray’ for some months.  “The income we are offering could only be a supplement to other earnings at the moment”, he concedes.  “But as the service develops, someone who was really working their patch and making it attractive to advertisers, should be able to bring in a good deal more”. 

He believes that interest in their stories will be sufficient to bring in traffic but says that the kinds of neighbourhoods that will really drive the service remains to be seen.  “Traditional wisdom has it that advertisers are more interested in higher income neighbourhoods, but students are more interested in and responsive to offers and voucher codes – so we will have to see”.

Generating interest in his redefined parish pump would seem to be Postcodegazette’s biggest challenge.  But, with a deep-pocketed financial backer who is sometimes described as a ‘publishing visionary’ and a management team with a strong professional track record, they represent the UK’s most serious attempt to date to make a proper business from hyperlocal news.

Written by Tim Dawson

July 4th, 2011 at 2:08 am

Hard data shatters hyperlocal dream

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Crystal Palace transmitter by Lancey (Flickr)

Report by Alex Klaushofer.

When hyperlocal publisher Chris Thomas was casting about for a topic for his postgraduate research, he decided to investigate some of the claims about the rise of hyperlocalism, and come up with some hard data about who is using them, and why.

‘There’s a lot of hype about hyperlocals, but there’s very scant research,’ says Thomas, who has just completed an MA in e-commerce at the University of Wales Trinity St David. For his dissertation, he decided to take a close look at how far such websites have succeeded in replacing more traditional local media, and the profile of their keenest users.

The London suburb he chose for his case study – which happens to be the much-loved habitat of your correspondent – was a rich source of material. Known for its strong community spirit and villlagey feel, Crystal Palace has a healthy range of hyperlocal media, from long-established community website Virtual Norwood to the celebratory local lifestyle mag the Transmitter. Thomas himself runs the online edition of its predecessor the palacemag

He first conducted a survey, leaving paper forms in the local library and cafes and inviting online responses via his website. Almost two hundred people responded, and the findings were then supplemented by a longitudinal study, conducted in February this year, of the ways in which people use Virtual Norwood and the community website for the neighbouring area Sydenham Town.

The key findings suggest that people see hyperlocal media as one small part of the information sources available to them about what is going on locally. ‘Users interact wtih hyperlocal media primarily for their information needs – they’re not looking for entertainment, or community interaction,’ says Thomas.

And it seems that digital media lags behind good old-fashioned word of mouth communication. Person-to-person communication ranked top of the list of thirteen channels delivering local news and information, with social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter coming in the bottom five.

Other results are somewhat disappointing for those who hail hyperlocals as the means for a new wave of citizen-based community activism. Just 3.8% of the members of the community websites were responsible for all contributions to debates, a finding which rather debunks the idea that the web is bringing about a new form of participatory democracy.

Meanwhile, the demographic of those taking part is narrow, with the under-twenties notable in their absence. The standard of users’ education was unusually high – more than double that of the 2001 census data and 22% higher than the average person in the research sample.

‘Hyperlocal websites are affected by an extremely narrow social demographic, middle class, middle aged and highly educated,’ says Thomas. ‘This is far higher than is seen in general web use and much higher than in general society. This lack of diversity could mean that similar opinions are being made by similar voices.’

Shrewdly, Thomas also uncovered some hard data to evidence the dynamics of local politics by asking whether fear of negative reaction put people off contributing to discussions: some 61% of respondents said they had hesitated in posting something due to fear of criticism.

The anecdotal responses that emerged en route were particularly revealing. ‘Some members of the forum complained of pettiness, and people hiding behind their avatars,’ he reports. Other respondents suggested that some posters used multiple screen names to launch attacks on people with opposing views.

‘It seems that participation inequality is higher in hyperlocal websites than in forums in general,’ says Thomas. ‘This could be because people are more passionate about their own locale, as what happens there affects them directly. This is particularly the case in areas such as planning, crime, shops and services. When key local campaigners get involved in postings they will have their own agenda and try to influence others as much as they can.’

So what should media-watchers conclude from these findings? At this early stage in the digital revolution, such research is as valuable as it is rare. But rather than throw out the baby with the hyperlocal bathwater, we should perhaps use it as a reality check, a reminder that the claim that new media alone is capable of opening up a brave new world, should be treated with caution. It’s still the old world, with all its human failings, and a bit of new technology thrown in.

Written by Alex

June 13th, 2011 at 5:01 am

Old model for new journalism – weekly paper proves sustainable

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Case study by Alex Klaushofer.

You could call it the new traditionalism. The Cleethorpes Chronicle is a rare beast – a weekly local newspaper, a start-up bucking the trend of the decline of print, launched in the teeth of recession and funded by advertising.

The paper was founded in March 2008 by editor Nigel Lowther and managing director Mark Webb on the strength of personal investment plus bank loans. Both men had substantial experience in the area’s regional press – the former was deputy editor of the Grimsby Telegraph, while Webb had been managing director at Grimsby and Scunthorpe newspapers. They had done no formal market research to establish the paper’s viability, but had a ‘strong gut feeling’ that the town, which had never had its own paper, could support one.

Three years on, it seems they were right. The paper has a weekly circulation of 10,000 and is available at around 90 local outlets from newsagents to supermarkets. Firmly in profit, and with a total staff of 13, it draws most of its revenue from advertising, while a small proportion comes from the paper’s cover price of 45p.

In marked contrast to the regional press, where expectations of profit can hit 30%, the proprietors of the Cleethorpes Chronicle say they will be content with profits of 5%.

It’s an aspiration, says Lowther, very much in keeping with the climate that traditionally nurtured local journalism. ‘We’re coming full circle,’ he says. ‘A hundred years ago, local newspapers were owned by local businesses who wanted to promote their message and make a contribution to the community. That’s exactly what we’re doing.’

Being at the heart of the community, he says, is key to developing the clear editorial vision central to the paper’s success. Despite their higher cost, it was decided from the outset to have offices in the town centre so that paper and community could communicate freely. The result is the classic local paper blend of stories and listings about what’s going on in the town’s schools and WIs – what Lowther calls ‘below-radar community journalism’.

Surprisingly, this is achieved with only one full-time reporter, supported by part-time staff who come in to produce the paper on a short press cycle. ‘Editorially, we are a lean, mean team,’ says Lowther. ‘If you’ve got a good team, they know what they’ve got to do, and it’s very focused.’

To avoid spreading the limited resources too thinly, the Chronicle has no news website, maintaining an online presence solely through a static, showcase-style site. And, if and when an online news operation is launched, the proprietors have already made some clear decisions about the business model.

‘We’ve always said we will never put our content online free of charge,’ says Lowther. ‘No other business does it, so we don’t see why newspapers should.’

Written by Alex

April 4th, 2011 at 4:34 am

Hyperlocalism – the next landgrab?

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Comment by Alex Klaushofer.
foto.bulle (Flickr) If the rhetoric is to be believed, hyperlocalism is the most promising trend the digital age has brought journalism. There are now hundreds of websites around the country, bringing local communities unprecedented levels of news gathered by newly-empowered citizen journalists. With their scrutiny of the local and celebration of the particular, it’s tempting to see hyperlocals as a new form of democratic journalism driven by a synergy between readers and writers.

For media-watchers looking for an answer to journalism’s money troubles, hyperlocalism may provide the beginnings of some reasons to be cheerful. It shows, at least, that there is still an appetite for local news, prompting the hope that where there is demand, money must follow.

But a bit dig deeper, and a different story emerges. Most hyperlocals are run by volunteers and activists – a feature which, according to evangelists like William Perrin and Networked Neighbourhoods, is part of their beauty. But it’s not a recipe for sustainability. The husband-and-wife-team behind the award-winning Ventnor Blog admit to ‘constantly wondering how they’re living’ despite running a site that’s become central to life on the Isle of Wight since it started five years ago.

Meanwhile, Tony Walley, the founder of Pits n Pots, the hyperlocal known for its hard-hitting coverage of Stoke-on-Trent, says the site’s development has run aground on the problem of monetisation. Even possible counter example start-up Preston, which has been notably successful in securing grant funding from NESTA, is hardly a model that could be widely replicated by others.

The common thread running through all these cases suggests an unpalatable possibility: it could it be that what we’re seeing is a movement with a limited life-span rather than the emergence of a new form of grassroots journalism.

The developing relationship between the grassroots hyperlocals and their bigger counterparts provides an indication of the direction things could take. Last summer, Trinity Mirror announced the launch of a network of hyperlocals working ‘in partnership’ with established sites like the Lichfield blog. In exchange for allowing Trinity Mirror sites to feature their material on their sites, contributing hyperlocals get to showcase their work and be properly credited.

The deal is symptomatic of the way the big media organisations are responding to the hyperlocal conundrum, reluctant to let such a promising new media trend pass them by, but unwilling to invest much in something that isn’t profitable. Northcliffe, Trinity Mirror and the Guardian all have modest hyperlocal operations, and it’s likely to be a while before they get any return for their investment. ‘It’s going to take a long time. Whether they’ll have the patience, I don’t know,’ says Sean Kelly, founder-director of NeighbourNet, the UK’s only fully commerical hyperlocal operation.

It’s hard, with the row about the Huffington Post profiting out of unpaid bloggers and aggregated content rumbling on, not to see an element of parasitism in the big media companies’ relationship with community-based hyperlocals. Neither Trinity Mirror nor Guardian Local, which shares a similar model, are thieving copy, as publishers have to sign up for the deal. (There are examples of outright theft in hyperlocal land: earlier this year had to take down content it had posted without permission, while Pits n Pots’ Walley claims his stories are frequently used, without attribution, by mainstream media organisations.) But it’s possible, further down the line, to see weary community publishers selling to big players seeking aggregation.

While everyone eagerly awaits hyperlocalism’s moment at the bank, it’s worth keeping an eye on the States, which is ahead of the UK in the new-models-for-journalism-game. Last week it emerged that Twitter co-founder Biz Stone is to join Huffington Post to develop a platform for community journalism, fuelling suspicions of a new media strategy based on free content now, profit later. The chief exec of local news aggregator Topix recently observed that – with a resurgence in local advertising now taking digital form – a land-grab is underway in hyperlocal media. So – to transplant the western analogy here – if the big media companies are the cowboys and the grassroots hyperlocals the Indians, what will happen when the landgrab comes here?

This article was first published on the New Statesman’s website, where it has generated a lively debate.

Written by Alex

March 21st, 2011 at 5:16 am

US hyperlocal fails to monetise

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By Alex Klaushofer. Leading US hyperlocal TBD is downsizing, slashing its staff and dumping its news coverage in favour of local entertainment and lifestyle content.

The decision by the Washington-based site will come as a disappointment to watchers of the hyperlocal model. Launched last summer as a pioneering model for local newsgathering, the site quickly gained impressive viewing stats – 1.5 million unique visitors – but has failed to translate the numbers into $$$.

Links to the some of the wave of comment inspired by the news can be found at Poynter.

Written by Alex

February 28th, 2011 at 6:01 am

Ad server goes hyperlocal

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Rvolve, which serves location-specific ads to a site, launched in beta this week.  Created by West Midland’s based developer Peter Abrahamson, it claims to allow advertisers to control where their ads appear to post code level. It is targeted at publishers of hyperlocal news sites.

Its structure is similar to Google’s Adsense, with advertisers paying per click, and publishers receiving 66% – 75% of revenue generated. 

“For advertisers, Rvolve gives new options to target around a series of shops, for example. Because the ads are distributed on multiple sites, there is an opportunity for large numbers of highly targeted local customers, which is the kind that actually purchases.” says Abrahamson.

The service works by having a latitude and longitude coordinate for the publisher’s content, and a coordinate for every advertisement. Using geographic search technology, which was developed by Rvolve’s author, the most relevant local adverts are shown.

Although clearly different to Addiply, it is evidence of the growing interest in effectively serving homebrew and hyperlocal sites with ads.

Written by Tim Dawson

February 22nd, 2011 at 3:40 am

Hyperlocal wins grant funding

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The announcement yesterday that Blog Preston has won public funding is surely a sign of a growing recognition that hyperlocals have a key role to play in British media.

The site, whose bid was made in partnership with other local organisations, is one of 16 community projects to have succeeded in the Neighbourhood Challenge run by NESTA – the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

According to blog founder Ed Walker, the grant will provide ‘significant funding’ for a collaborative media project aimed at creating ‘a surge in community journalism’. As reports, it will fund the recruitment and training of a number of citizen journalists.

But, with Preston one of six hundred projects who applied for an award, grant funding is unlikely to provide a sustainable future for most of the hundreds of hyperlocals now beavering away around the country.

Written by Alex

February 18th, 2011 at 7:41 am

Not on my Patch

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A detailed long-term analysis of AOL’s Patch local news sites appears today at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.  It tracks the company’s attempt to create a national network of hyperlocal news sites, via a $50m investment that has now spawned 700 sites across the USA.  In an encounter with Patch editor in chief,  author Robert Hernandez goes so far as to demands of AOL’s CEO Tim Armstrong ‘Is Patch Evil’.

It is one of a number of hard questions put to senior Patch managers – however their predictably Pollyannerish answers are reported without challenge of analysis.  Perhaps this will come in the articles promised second instalment.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, STV Local has now opened its north east sites – bringing to 16 the number of communities it is covering.

Written by Tim Dawson

February 2nd, 2011 at 4:28 am

Shott – in the dark

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Nicholas Shott’s report into the feasibility of new local television services in the UK envisages ten or twelve stations that initially piggyback on terrestrial television services. Until the arrival of universal high-speed broadband, Shott anticipates two hours per night of local content that could be accessed from the programme guide or a ‘yellow button’.

It is a vision which explicitly contemplates stations being run by pre-existing local media groups such as newspapers.

The report estimates that funding such services will cost around £25m.  It suggests that £15m of this should come from an underwritten advertising contract with an organisation that has pre-existing experience in such a market (such as ITV), £5m might come from the BBC, under its commitment to acquire more local news, and finally £5m per annum might come from selling advertising locally.

That Shott – a veteran of Express group newspapers and now a merchant banker – should come up with such a limited vision should, perhaps be no surprise.  And a package that offers jam tomorrow to existing press barons has obvious political use for culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, who commissioned the report.

Nevertheless, this report could have offered so much more.

Creating stations in cities, such as Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle upon Tyne, will provide more local news for areas that are already well-served by regional television news. Ceding control to local media organisations will bolster press groups most of which have already treated the communities they serve with disdain. But worst of all, such an initiative could crowd out genuinely local, small-scale internet television operations.


Written by Tim Dawson

December 17th, 2010 at 11:02 am