Hyperlocal under scrutiny – the case of Parwich

In the first of series of case studies of hyperlocal start-ups, NMJ examines a highly successful rural community website

Photo: David Grimshaw
A remote Derbyshire village of just 500 souls is hardly the kind of place you’d expect to be pioneer of hyperlocal journalism, but www.parwich.org is being hailed as a flagship community website.

Now in its third year, the site provides the village with near-continuous coverage of local news, event listings and celebratory photos that a weekly newspaper could only dream of. And its several daily postings are all provided by a six-strong team of voluntary bloggers.

The idea came in 2007 when the village – losing its shop, Methodist chapel and bus service to Derby – was at a low ebb. Needing to secure funding for the rebuilding of the Memorial Hall, some enterprising residents figured that a website might demonstrate the sincerity of the community to grant-givers.

Launching in March 2008, the site was an ‘instant hit’, according to Mike Atkinson, one of the editorial team and an award-winning blogger in his own right. Two years on, it gets 400 page views on a quiet day and 1200 on a busy one, drawing interest from outsiders such as former residents. ‘Pretty much everyone in the village who has a computer reads us on a regular basis,’ says Atkinson.

The bloggers, who work as and when with no rota, are often out and about covering local events. There’s no hierarchical editorial structure but, with the most controversial issues being fly-tipping and fouling by dogs, there’s not much need for an editor to carry the can.

So what about money? The healthy clutch of banners promoting local organisations and businesses on the site is deceptive: they’re not adverts. Initially generating income through sponsorship and donations in kind for the Memorial Hall appeal, they have stayed up as a ‘thank you’ to donors.

Atkinson says that the bloggers, who all have other sources of income, don’t expect to earn anything from their work. Meanwhile, with the domain name donated by a villager, the costs of running the site – around £10 a year – are negligible.

‘We’re not going to go down the road of Adsense,’ says Atkinson. ‘We’re not interested in monetising.’

Clearly, www.parwich.org is a powerful illustration of two encouraging new truths about the future of local online journalism: both local news and readers exist in unprecedented levels of detail or – in the new jargon – ‘granularity’.

But the case of Parwich says little about whether the funding model is there too. Its staunchly non-commercial approach makes it hard to tell whether the model is financially unviable or whether this is just the way the founders of this particular project want to do things.

The apparently idyllic nature of life in the village also means it has few lessons to share about the practicalities of covering tougher patches and more controversial stories.

Future NMJ case studies of hyperlocal experiments will explore these and other questions.

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