"It's exhilarating. It is like turning the clock back, digging for tales from online council committee meeting minutes as opposed to printed agendas. I'm working as hard now as I did when I was a district reporter for the Birmingham Evening Mail more than 40 years ago, covering Tamworth, North Warwickshire and Nuneaton. Today it's still police, fire, ambulance, courts, council and sport; that staple diet.
"It is still about the story but it is what you do after you have written the story that makes the difference between ten people seeing it and 15,000. I am always mindful that without good viewing figures, we would go the same way as some local papers, who have lost readers and circulation.
"I've gone from hot metal, through photo composition to the promised land of digital reporting. The only thing I don't like is the SEO headline, having to rework headlines to suit SEO rather than suit my skills as a headline writer. But that is a small sacrifice if it means that we can carry on giving the local population of Atherstone, and places like it, a quality local news service."
At the beginning
That local news service is Nub News, the baby of former City equities trader Karl Hancock, who appears to be as passionate about local news as he is about his beloved hometown football club Crewe Alexandra, where he is a director.
Karl spent 25 years working in the City, including spells at Goldman Sachs and Berenberg, before launching the low-cost hyperlocal news network in January 2019, initially in his adopted home county of Devon. He had been approached by a former university friend, Dean Waghorn, a computer programmer who came up with the concept of a "low-cost technology platform" to "put your town in your pocket".
Karl said: “I saw it as a massive opportunity. Newspaper groups are doing the best they can but they are really struggling and something has to change in this industry. Everyone is in trouble with revenues declining by five to ten per cent a year.”
The Nub News concept became reality when the two fledgling media entrepreneurs pitched their plans to a group of City investors, who backed it with two initial tranches of funding. Barely more than a year after launching, Nub News boasts 32 locations, from Penarth to Shepton Mallet and Falmouth to Frome, serving an aggregate population of around 750,000. The hyperlocal network claims unique users up by 33 per cent in March from 285,000 to 380,000. Pageviews rose by 50 per cent from 700,000 to over one million, and the upward trend continues.
It all sounds very impressive, but at first glance scarcely any different from the continual boasts by the bigger boys of regional publishing – Reach, Newsquest et al – over their scale of online audience. Meanwhile, the office closures and staff cutbacks continue apace, with the still critical print advertising revenue decimated even further by the coronavirus crisis.
The business model
But the difference, say the likes of Nick Hudson and Karl Hancock, is that the ‘town in your pocket’ project is not reliant on traditional advertising, but aims to cover its costs through sponsorship from local businesses whose banner adverts are displayed across the hyperlocal pages. The guys at Nub News happily eschew intrusive pop-up adverts and ubiquitous, often meaningless, surveys which populate so many local news websites – and pour open scorn on the much derided concept of so-called clickbait which has generated so much media commentary in recent times.
Says Nick, 67, who took up his role as Atherstone Nub News editor in February: "We are not clickbait-driven. We do not do what the big publishers do and deliberately set out to attract readers with clickbait rather than real stories. Our business model is quality journalism rather than appealing to the baser instincts of people. I am sad to see newspapers closing but I am not sad for the modern breed of newspaper owners who place profit before providing news for the people.
"The big difference is the quality and caring about the town and district. We can legitimately say to our sponsors: ‘You believe in our town, and so do we.’”
Karl adds: “You only have to look at some news sites online and you get bombarded with clickbait, surveys and the like. Our idea is for the consumer to have a nice, pleasant read. I tell my journalists, 'you are not there to get clicks, you are there to give users a good, pleasant reading experience.’”
Ironically, Nick and I meet to discuss life behind the scenes at Nub News in the same week that his main print opposition – in the form of the Atherstone and Coleshill Herald – is suspended "for the foreseeable future" by owners Reach PLC following a sudden collapse in advertising in the aftermath of coronavirus. Sadly, it is the first time that the North Warwickshire market town has been deprived of its own title since the launch of the long defunct Atherstone Gazette in 1828.
But Nick does not view the mothballed (* see footnote) local newspaper in Atherstone or indeed elsewhere as credible opposition in the brave new world of Nub News. "I do not see print as opposition, apart from that journalistic pride in getting the story first. I only see the web as opposition – Coventry Live (owned by Reach) would be my main opposition. And, frankly, I would suggest that we already have more viewers for Atherstone Nub News than the number of readers who ever purchased the Atherstone Herald. In that sense, the job is more rewarding."
It is still about the story but it is what you do after you have written the story that makes the difference.
Some things never change
But old habits die hard for any journalist with nearly five decades at the coalface. And, intriguingly, Nick has found himself returning to quite a few of those old newspaper habits which were staple elements of the daily lives of generations of journalists long before the internet came along, with all its implications for news consumption and the whims of the reading public.
"I go to every North Warwickshire Borough Council committee meeting, the full council, at Atherstone Town Council. I was welcomed in some quarters and viewed with suspicion by others because it had been so long since they had seen a journalist. I have the opportunity to meet local councillors and officers. In the main, I have been warmly received. In that sense it is just like the old days, and that's good.
"If there was a murder or a fatal, I would approach it in the same way as 40 years ago, going to see the family and collecting a picture. They want me to go out but if I spend two hours out getting a really good story, I have lost two hours monitoring everything else that is going on. By the time I get back, all hell could have broken loose and I could have missed the one big story that could have put our numbers up."
So, feeding the insatiable internet monster clearly has its downsides? "News never sleeps and there are no longer any firm deadlines in place. In the past, you were only ever at the mercy of your newspaper's edition timeslot on the press. But it's a 24-7 world out there.
"I started with one deadline on a Thursday night at 6pm on the Nuneaton Observer while on the Birmingham Evening Mail, there were sixteen different deadlines with ten or more editions a day all over the Midlands. But in the digital world, the deadline is five minutes ago and the race is on to publish against an opposition trying to hit the SEO trail a second before you.
"Press officers ask, 'When do you need the comment by? What's your deadline? An hour ago, of course. I think to myself, what planet are they on?"
The ‘town in your pocket’ project is not reliant on traditional advertising.
Nick freely admits he misses the camaraderie of newsrooms. "I never had so much fun as when I worked for the Daily Sport as group production editor, it was a laugh a minute. I never get to meet my colleagues; they are all over the country. We have a conference call every week when we speak to Karl."
And the news veteran's modus operandi at Nub News seems to reflect so much of the digital era, where lives are led largely through screens. "I don't get many phone calls, I get lots of information electronically, loads of people texting and emailing. We do not have to be in physical contact with people anymore but I do think the art of communication is being lost.
"People have been brought up in a digital world and they are unnerved by being approached by journalists face to face or on the phone."
But the digital age is here to stay, regardless of its effects on journalism and society as a whole. And Karl Hancock, who says he has 200 CVs from journalists to sift through, is clearly relishing his attempt to re-invent local news for screen consumers whilst encouraging Nick and his other journalistic recruits to give local readers an enjoyable local read.
Nick said: "I speak to him two, three or four times a day. There is not a day goes by when you do not hear from Karl. I do not see that as a bad thing, I like it because it shows that he is passionate, and I am passionate too."
That passion is evident in Karl’s pledge of further expansion for Nub News, with more sites and more staff jobs promised. The Nub News supremo says: “I knew nothing about journalism and news but I am learning every day. But [Nub News] was the catalyst for me to say I have now got another focus in life, let's make this business work.
“People love what we are doing. We have grown faster than we expected and the sponsors are coming through. I want to raise £2 million in the next few months – we are 18 months in and are already six months ahead of where we planned to be.
“Coronavirus has accelerated the decline of the local news industry and accelerated a crisis which has grown over the last ten to twenty years. But I am not doing this altruistically. I built this business because somebody came to me with a good idea and that good idea will ultimately do a lot of good for many towns in this country.”
Ultimately, coronavirus will come and go but it would seem that Karl Hancock and his team will be around to outlive the deadly disease – unlike some stricken local newspapers – if their low-cost model continues to pull in the sponsors and investors.
Meanwhile, the likes of Nick Hudson can enjoy an Indian summer of journalism back on the council and courtroom benches which were once more fully populated by generations of former colleagues.
* Since this article was written, publication of the Atherstone Herald has restarted (at the end of May) and the number of Nub News sites has increased to 35.
Our business model is quality journalism rather than appealing to the baser instincts of people.
This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.