There was a time when “local” and “sustainable” were most often seen together as buzzwords for ethical vegetables; lately, these virtues are just as likely to be paired in conversations about digital news platforms.
Local news is experiencing both crisis and renaissance: as industry upheaval continues to swallow up metropolitan and regional newspapers (a site called Newspaper Death Watch sprouted up in 2007 to track the North American casualties), some of the journalists being turned into the streets are putting their ear to the asphalt, listening carefully, and participating in the online reincarnation of neighbourhood reporting.
Today’s column by the Guardian’s Roy Greesnslade, headlined “Local news crisis: look what journalists who know their patch can achieve,” offers an excerpt from a book by political correspondent Les Reid (What do we mean by Local?), in which Reid celebrates the community value of local coverage. He emphasizes local reporters’ abilities to scrutinize their politicians from close-up, and points to the opportunities offered by the Internet in terms of information-gathering, publishing space, and live coverage.
From New York magazine to Politico, it has long been apparent the hunger for hyperlocal news in a roaring metropolis like Manhattan or Washington DC rivals that for street hotdogs. As local newspapers continue to evaporate, however, a “near me” news vacuum is opening up in localized pockets across North America and Europe. Hyperlocal sites like Wrexham.com and the Port Talbot MagNet in Wales, Berkeleyside and West Seattle Blog in the US, Torontoist in Canada and Dichtbij in the Netherlands are cropping up to fill the void.
While monetization is a problem across the digital news board, these sites are increasingly proving sustainable, and networks are emerging to try to make them replicable across a larger scale, from Gothamist LLC, the network responsible for New York’s Gothamist and six other urban ‘ist’ blogs to AOL’s financially troubled Patch platform, and its better-off Dutch counterpart Dichtbij.
Based on our scrutiny of these examples, here are three hyperlocal rules of thumb:
1. Cultivate your patch
The Port Talbot MagNet was started in 2010 as a non-profit co-operative by a team of professional journalists from the South Wales town who had been made “redundant” by cuts at established magazines or newspapers. Aside from starting up the WordPress blog, the first stages of setting up shop included “learning the patch and making contacts:” they called local companies and asked to be on the mailing lists for press releases, and used Facebook to reach the online community, which drives approximately 50% of their traffic.
Attracting 3,500 unique viewers per month and counting, the site has seen its audience grow consistently as its writers have learned what the readers appreciate most: coverage of theatre productions, protests, campaigns, crime and local elections, according to Online Journalism Blog. Notably, a spike in readership came from their coverage of a landscape theatre production called The Passion in 2011.
It may seem obvious, but hiring people who possess and continually seek intimate knowledge of the areas they are writing about is equally crucial when creating hyperlocal networks, according to the experience of Dichtbij founder Bart Brouwers, reported Nieman Lab.
At Dichtbij, which is responsible for 80 sites across the Netherlands, and is on track to generate $12.5 million in revenue in 2012, according to Nieman Lab, half of a journalist’s time is expected to be spent writing, filming, editing etc., and the other half out and about around town, and reaching out to citizens via social media. Indeed, they are not considered journalists at all, but “community organizers.”
The temptation to centralize must be avoided, Brouwers warns: advertising salespeople and community managers should be natives of the places in question. “Holland is a very small country, but we have small differences in the language, so if you speak with the wrong language, things can go wrong,” said Brouwers.
Torontoist demonstrates its native streed cred by referencing niche local knowledge in its shifting logo: “We have about 20 different icons that we use in our logo, so each time you visit the site you might see a different one,” the site explains. “They highlight Toronto landmarks (such as the ferry boats or the Humber Bay Bridge) and sometimes they mark special occasions (like TIFF or Pride).” These kinds of details, that a non-Torontonian would be unlikely to pick up on, are a sort of visual in-joke that create a warm, fuzzy feeling in what can sometimes be an alienating digital realm.
Ned Berke, editor of Sheepshead Bites (a hyperlocal blog from Brooklyn) has a manifesto about the delights and rewards of producing hyperlocal news, which Cory Doctorow shared on Boing Boing: “What meaningful local reporting requires is a personal investment. If the reporter doesn’t stand to benefit from a healthy community, his coverage will serve to dramatize and exacerbate problems rather than solve them. When Sheepshead Bites ventures to cover the community, we do it because we’re neighbors. Our writers live here. Our business is based here. And we endeavor to support and uplift our neighbors for all of our benefit."
And the positive effects are tangible, according to Berke: "Our reporting sees results. When we complain about garbage, it gets cleaned up. When we question politicians, they endeavor to meet our concerns.”
2. Activate your community
Local news is based on a symbiotic relationship: “The reporter gives the audience reporting…and the public gives the reporter the knowledge of what’s happening in their communities,” Dichtbij's Bart Brouwers told Nieman Lab. To cultivate the relationships between users and creators, Dichtbij reportedly invites their users to visit their offices for a glass of beer or cup of coffee and a chat.
Port Talbot MagNet board member Rachel Howells explained to Online Journalism Blog how the Port Talbot community in southern Wales pitches in to help the non-profit co-operative stay alive: when their funding applications were unsuccessful, they drew inspiration from Spot.Us (an open-source project dedicated to “community powered reporting” that allows the public to commission reporting on certain topics), and set up their own crowd funding model called Pitch-in! “I love what Spot.Us has done to empower freelance journalists and as this was at the heart of our enterprise we have been really keen to offer this as a service to our members,” said Howells.
Meanwhile, in northern Wales, hyperlocal blog Wrexham.com is practicing an innovative tactic that can be seen as reverse crowdfunding: in order to build an audience and build up its crowdsourcing capacity, the blog offers a £10 incentive for selected story tip-offs and submissions. Called the "Wrexham tenner," the initiative has reportedly shown that "people are quite excited to be part of the news process," the site’s founder Rob Taylor told Journalism.co.uk.
The site also uses crowdsourcing in its fuel prices monitor system: it tweets out the latest fuel prices at 8:30 am and noon every day, and allows users to log into the system and upload the latest prices that they have seen at petrol stations across town. "It's part of making it genuinely useful for real people in the town," said Taylor.
Meanwhile, far from Wales, Torontoist asks users to contribute photos to what it labels “our extremely terrific Flickr pool.”
3. Dream realistically
Wrexham.com, less than a year after its launch, has recently moved into its own office and hired a full-time journalist, reported Journalism.co.uk. The site's founder recounted his modest aspirations: "Due to essentially the low cost operation of the website, we don't have to make loads of money to survive and be sustainable,” he said. “We've got quite a low bar set to make sure we're sustainable going forward and be here in the next few years. We're quietly confident given the feedback we've had so far and we're already getting orders in terms of ads.” The latest audience figures for Wrexham.com show 53,000 visits in the past 30 days, and just over 131,500 page views.
Rachel Howells also set reasonable goals for the Port Talbot MagNet, where many of the journalists are volunteers and employed full-time elsewhere. As she explained to Online Journalism Blog: “We would like to keep growing, pay journalists and establish a sustainable model that could benefit other communities who are facing similar ‘news black holes’ following the death of a local newspaper. And we’d really like to persuade the local council to let us film their council meetings…”