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

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.