As the regional publishers pull out, a new breed of journalist is finding a market for truly local stories
At a meeting with a local news editor in London a couple of years ago, the discussion focused on the holy grail of journalism: what is news? ‘News is what’s relevant,’ said the editor. ‘If someone was murdered a few streets away, we wouldn’t report it because it’s just not relevant for our audience.’
But surely a murder is a murder, right? Of course, where it happens is relevant, but that’s not the only factor. It is not just where the act is committed, but the nature of it: the gruesomeness, the morbidity – how scandalous or tragic it is that determines its newsworthiness. Few would disagree. But the news editor in question runs what some refer to as a hyperlocal. A site that focuses on a specific geographic area. In this particular case, a single postcode. And relevance plays a big part in its coverage.
Unlike a traditional local paper that focuses on a town or city or even region, hyperlocals typically cover more specific geographic areas, such as neighbourhoods, villages and, as in the case above, postcodes; ultra- concentrated communities that want information about things that directly affect them. However, as Carina Tenor wrote in her report for the London School of Economics media thinktank Polis, Hyperlocal News: After the Hype, ‘the label hyperlocal is put on a broad range of different motivations, skills, business models and geographical settings – even platforms’.
In short, it refers to small and informal DIY news ventures, citizen-led projects with a heavy community focus. What they do is as much a part of community participation and active citizenship as the local Saturday Parkrun, which of course rarely goes unreported. The term also applies to independent community news sites covering comparatively large areas, such as the Lincolnite, the Edinburgh Reporter or Birmingham Updates. It is not just about geographic communities either. It also includes sites that cover specific communities of interest, such as Hold the Front Page, the online trade site for journalists, and Senedd Home, the website that reports on the Welsh Assembly.
Some of these publishers are trained journalists; others are local citizens wanting to champion their communities. Some run their sites part-time, juggling full-time jobs and busy family lives; others work tirelessly to make them financially successful. Made possible by the advent of blogs and social media, these online publications (some of which have transitioned into print in recent years) are filling the void left behind by newspapers that, week by week, consolidate operations, move journalists out of communities, close offices, and stop the presses for the final time.
There has been a net loss of well over 245 newspapers since 2005. Print circulations have halved and ad revenue has fallen by 75 per cent. The Media Reform Coalition recently reported that of the remaining outlets, 80 per cent are accountable to only six organisations.
The disorderly mismanagement of local journalism by corporations (or as Jeff Jarvis once called it: milking the cow until it keels over) has riven the country with news black holes – places wherein the news of a road closure can only be read when graffitied on an underpass. Port Talbot, for example, has lost more than 90 per cent of its journalists since 1970. The town now has one reporter, who covers the area for Reach plc’s Wales Online/South Wales Evening Post. It used to have 11, who covered the patch for five different titles.
Newspapers have always been mechanisms that strengthen community cohesion. Research carried out by Dr Rachel Howells reported a correlation between newspaper closures and journalists leaving the community and a fall to below the national average in voter turnout. This suggests that there is a link between democratic engagement (voter apathy) and locally useful journalism, ‘and is tentative evidence – along with other measures – of a tangible democratic deficit’.
It is from these murky depths that independent community news outlets (hyperlocals) spring up to cover the particulars of local life: council meetings, hustings, court hearings, local transport, crime, schools, history, planning, sporting events, hospitals, community profiles, potholes – the bread and butter of the traditional newspaper. They provide valuable information to residents via a truly local and trusted platform.
They also provide a voice for individual community members. James Cracknell, editor of the Waltham Forest Echo, said: ‘Our paper is written by local people who have something to say. They email me with a problem – we’re worried about air pollution, a development being built on land – and I email them back and say: why don’t you write an article? They didn’t have that before. They had reporters in Essex…’
Editor and founder of the Isle of Thanet News Kathy Bailes echoed these sentiments: ‘Being hyperlocal means understanding your community, tackling the issues, promoting the good, and giving a voice.’
Independent community news organisations are also responsive to the needs and nuances of their communities. In many cases, these platforms were set up in protest, on single issues, out of frustration at the lack of understanding of their local newspaper, in part because its journalists no longer lived or worked in the community but from centralised ‘editing hubs’ in the next county over, or in the most extreme cases, another country altogether. Because hyperlocal journalists are part of the community and connected with their community and engaged with the protagonists of their stories, there is an ability and a desire to work together to address local issues and to affect positive change.
Never mind the hype, feel the reality
Hyperlocals were once lauded as the potential saviours of local democracy. They were going to replace the crumbling edifice of traditional local journalism. But the hype and the reality were at odds.
William Perrin, a one-time hyperlocal publisher and founder of the public service project Talk About Local, said: ‘These little websites are great, but none are really ever going to be big, established things that have the capacity to hold the state to account, and so on. They can do that to a degree, but will never have the amount of money the old local newspapers used to have. That is not going to happen – maybe with one or two tiny exceptions, but not for the vast majority.’
Perrin was right, in the sense that hyperlocals were never going to be able to compete financially with traditional local papers. But the past decade has shown that they don’t have to. Many hyperlocal sites have reached parity with their traditional competitors; in some cases, overtaken them in terms of reach and coverage, including social media metrics.
The chronic lack of revenue in the independent community journalism sector does not detract from the quality. In spite of it, innovation is thriving and the sector is growing. The Independent Community News Network (ICNN), set up in 2018 to represent the hyperlocal news sector, now counts more than 115 titles as members. This alliance of high-quality and reputable publications has made great leaps, dispelling the image of hyperlocal publishers as nothing more than bedroom bloggers and keyboard warriors.
Instead, ICNN, which was founded and is funded by Cardiff University, has demonstrated that independent community news publishers are individuals passionate about representing their communities, holding power to account, and maintaining high professional standards of accuracy, transparency, inclusivity, and integrity.
One third are regulated by Impress and all have access to free legal advice. Nearly half of all news organisations which have partnered with the BBC on its Local News Partnerships scheme are members of ICNN.
All members of ICNN respect the same laws and guidelines as traditional media outlets. They adhere to either the Editors’ Code of Practice or the Impress Standards Code, and the National Union of Journalists’ Code of Conduct. They demonstrate a clear and transparent management/ ownership structure, are fully inclusive of all ethnicities and backgrounds, and pride themselves on being non-discriminatory.
However, Perrin’s caution is understandable.
The sector has indeed matured beyond the first phase of enthusiasm and beyond its difficult second act, in which it struggled to develop. It now occupies not just a complementary but an invaluable place in the emerging media ecosystem. But funding, sustainability, recognition and visibility still endure as challenges. ICNN has done much over the past two years to mitigate the effects of these issues, but the sector remains precarious. How to get people to pay for the news they read remains the number one challenge undermining journalism in the 21st Century. This is no more apparent than at the hyperlocal level, where there are no economies of scale and where profit margins are razor-thin. However, it is also where news is generally more valued, and this means there is room to innovate.
Micro-payments, patronage, memberships, donations, subscriptions, white-label ad models, syndications, sponsored content, native advertising, content production, events… the list goes on. The hyperlocal sector is awash with multiple attempts at finding the answer to the challenge of financial sustainability. In some cases, publishers have found that going into print can generate revenue many people had given up chasing.
Being able to guarantee X number of letterboxes in a tightly defined postcode, something local newspapers can no longer do, is an attractive offer for local businesses. Richard Coulter, editor and publisher of the Local Voice Network, a franchise model of nearly 20 publications in and around the Bristol area, told In Publishing a few years ago: ‘There are a lot of negative vibes about the printed press, and much excitement about hyperlocal websites – but revenues in both are either declining or minuscule. What I’ve discovered is that there’s a healthy editorial and commercial appetite for a clever combination of the two – hyperlocal print products.’
In spite of the Local Voice Network’s successes, communities are distinctive, quirky, tightly defined. What works in one community will not necessarily work in another. Over the years, there have been many one-size- fits-all business models that have failed to live up to the hype. It is the question of relevance again. Communities want their voices heard, they want their identities to be represented and reflected back at them.
Jacks and Jills of all trades
Many a community journalist must be a general factotum: the writer, the snapper, the ad salesperson, the web designer, the sub-editor, the admin and the managing editor – the one whose head is on the block if something goes wrong. The pressure is immense. Mental health is an often-overlooked issue affecting independent community media. We always talk about financial sustainability but rarely about mental and physical wellness as a contributing factor to the success of a publication.
In most cases, hyperlocals lack the scale and infrastructure to support an illness (mental and/or physical). Inevitably, the considerable effort that producing a community news publication entails is the first casualty when things go off course.
The Wotton Times – a printed hyperlocal that was in profit from day one – had to shut its doors in August 2019 due to the health of one of its founders. Cornish Stuff is rethinking its future business model after editor Milo Perrin was diagnosed with epilepsy and so can no longer drive. And another hyperlocal in London, one of the oldest in the country, is facing a difficult future due to burnout.
But there is still hope.
As the end of the financial year approaches, the Welsh government will need to decide if it wants to continue financially supporting the sector in Wales. In 2019, it launched the Independent Community Journalism Fund – a £200,000 innovation fund which, to date, has funded four projects. It already supports, through the Books Council of Wales, the Welsh language press. The £2million Future News Pilot Fund, funded by the government and arbitrated by innovation foundation Nesta, is keen on helping public interest news projects, with a keen focus on how to support local journalism in the future. The fund was recommended by the Cairncross Review.
ICNN is about to start trailing its Google-funded project, Value My News, which will look at how revenue streams can be generated by up- selling content to other media in the UK supply chain and stimulated demand for hyperlocal news. The trade body is also in talks with the NUJ to help to increase the visibility and recognition of its members through access to press cards and union support.
Finally, in May 2020, at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London, in front of around 500 industry sponsors and guests, the winners of the first awards for independent community news publishers will be announced. Emma Meese, director of community journalism at Cardiff University, said: ‘These awards recognise the change in attitudes across the industry towards independent news providers. That they are a vital and indispensable part of the news media ecosystem has been clear for some time – these awards underline that.’
Matthew Abbott is communications and project officer at the Centre for Community Journalism at Cardiff University.