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Hyperlocal – making its voice heard

Hyperlocal publishing is not new; the humble parish mag dates back to the 1850s after all – but the arrival of digital and the decline of some of the big regional publishers has opened up new opportunities over the past decade. As Nick Turner reports, hyperlocal publishing is coming of age and its leading players are demanding to be heard.

By Nick Turner

Hyperlocal – making its voice heard

What image comes to mind when you think of hyperlocal journalism?

Is it perhaps that annoying person who has set up a website on your patch – run no doubt from their spare bedroom – to hoover up all the police information and press releases and take a few bites of your advertising revenue in the process?

Or is it the saviour of journalism, filling the void left by a newspaper group that has given up on holding councils to account in favour of clickbait articles and formulaic listicles?

There will be many variations of these stereotypes around the UK, but the central truth is that many hyperlocal enterprises have come of age and outgrown their somewhat patronising label and are demanding to be taken seriously. Hyperlocal or community journalists are joining forces, seeking representation and demanding a seat at the table with the big boys when it comes to issues such as press regulation, the BBC and, contentiously, a slice of the revenue local newspapers have traditionally received via public notices.

New trade body

The Independent Community News Network (ICNN) has recently been formed to support the sector and lobby on its behalf. Much of its work will focus on supporting existing hyperlocals and helping establish new sites, but it also has an agenda that could set it on a collision course with the established regional media.

It has been set up by the Centre for Community Journalism at Cardiff University where manager Emma Meese says that members range in size from micro-sites covering villages to publishers who work across an entire county or city.

“What we have gone back to is something which we had years ago: a series of patch reporters. The intention is there with much of the traditional legacy press to cover local news at a very community level, but the reality is that you just can’t do it if you don’t have reporters on the ground; if you have one reporter when you used to have eight.

“So, we have two aims - to create more jobs for journalists at a local level and, secondly, to ensure the quality of news at a local level is as high as it can be,” she said.

The ICNN is offering a support network that includes training, legal advice, a forum for discussion, advice and other resources.

But it is where the body starts to act as a lobbying group that things are likely to get interesting. Take press regulation, for example, where the hyperlocals seem to be falling in with Impress rather than Ipso.

Impress made strong overtures to the hyperlocal sector and highlights them on their website whereas Ipso is seen to be aloof. Take a look at the two websites of Impress and Ipso, by the way, and you will see a stark contrast in how easy it is to find information on joining each organisation.

Also on the shopping list for ICNN is the setting up of a news agency to monetise and protect content created by hyperlocals and it has already successfully lobbied for greater access to the BBC’s local journalism project.

But it is the issue of money from public notices where the sparks are likely to fly. Newspapers have already been fighting a rear-guard action to cling on to revenue from statutory public notices and are being challenged by hyperlocals who see it as an unofficial subsidy for the traditional media.

Mrs Meese said: “Now we have a body that will represent the interests and the needs of hyperlocal publishers across the UK.

“And an issue for this sector is access to funds for statutory notices. At the moment, that is a closed door for a substantial number of the members in our sector and we strongly believe that’s not fair.

“Just because you are a traditional newspaper publisher, it should not mean that you get access to public notices when some of our publishers have much wider reach and audience. We should stop thinking in terms of newspapers and start thinking in terms of news publishers.”

Ian Murray, former editor of the Southampton Echo and now deputy executive director of the Society of Editors hopes not.

“There is widespread recognition across the media industry of the contribution being made by hyperlocal publishers, but I would hope that we can find ways to work together through the Society and other bodies on issues such as section 40, press freedom and lobbying for a fair deal from digital platforms such as Facebook.

“We have many common problems and shared foes so it is important that the industry is united. The Society wants to embrace all forms of media output which includes hyperlocals.”

Local Voice Network

A chance meeting in a lift between former Bristol Post assistant editor Richard Coulter and advertising manager Emma Cooper after they had both accepted redundancy led to the start of this venture which now boasts fifteen community newspapers.

It started with the Filtonvoice in 2011 at 16 pages which quickly grew to a 52-page publication and a network that has now spread out of the Bristol area for the first time to Wells.

Advertisers have responded to the proposition of a publication that is delivered to every door in a tightly defined community and Richard believes the journalism is a cut above your usual parish pump publication.

“We’re giving a news service to communities that had been neglected for years and years, going to parish councils and things that haven’t been covered by the regional press who have largely stopped going – for reasons I can understand.

“We’ve been strong on campaigns too. We campaigned to save a maternity clinic, campaigned to save the library, and have a campaign to save a community garden from having a dual carriageway over it,” he said.

Richard sees his mission now as getting the Voice model taken up as a franchise in another city, but admits that the model will not work for every community,

He said: “I’d like to see a discussion with central government about support in communities where it is quite hard to do a publication – areas that don’t have many businesses or people with much disposable income.

“I don’t want to get to a point where we’re very successful but only operate in affluent communities. I want us or somebody like us to be operating everywhere as hyperlocals are the ones who guarantee that everybody has some kind of news service.”

The Lincolnite

Daniel Ionescu decided to launch The Lincolnite with two friends when on his graduation day, he read a gloomy assessment from the Guardian about the prospects for graduate employment and realised he wanted to be a media entrepreneur.

Seven years on, The Lincolnite has a team of ten staff, runs three online brands covering the historic city, the entire county and the business community. Add to that events such as a Tech Week and digital awards and you have a successful, commercial business.

As a digital only player, it has given the Lincolnshire Echo a run for its money and sees itself as the dominant media in the area – a rivalry that is given some added spice by the fact that the Echo’s offices are situated just across the street.

It boasts a social media and email following of 150,000, and monthly web traffic of 550,000 unique users. Such is its influence that Tory MP Karl McCartney blamed the site for his election defeat and its exposé of parking wardens manipulating pictures to give out bogus fines was picked up by the nationals.

Daniel is a strong supporter of moves to link up the hyperlocal sector and forthright about what he wants that body to lobby on.

“I would like to see action to end the subsidies printed papers receive from local authorities in terms of the public notices. In my view, legislation should be amended to reflect the modern landscape in which councils would be allowed to put them in digital publications as well or their own website should they wish to.

“It’s millions of pounds that is basically a government subsidy to papers across the country.”

West Leeds Dispatch

The Dispatch was born two years ago out of what editor John Baron describes as a frustration that “local people felt they weren’t getting their voices heard in the existing mainstream media” and since then has clocked up 1.3m pageviews on its website.

It prides itself in delving into local issues such as planning and consultations in great detail and reaching out to groups such Eastern European communities. It recently established a board as part of moves to develop a more sustainable future with a wider volunteer base.

John is a journalist with 21 years’ experience who worked on the Guardian’s ‘Guardian Local’ project, and currently works as a journalism teacher, filling his free time working for the Dispatch.

The Dispatch actually covers five wards of Leeds, an area far larger than most hyperlocals (a term that John has started to find annoying). John believes that the traditional media has created the conditions for such community projects to thrive.

“We have a closeness with our community and that’s a closeness that, in general, across the journalism industry, the local press is losing as it reduces the number of reporters on patches. We have regular news cafes, run events, have representation at galas and fetes and are seen as part of the community,” he said.

The Dispatch is one of fifteen hyperlocals that have been chosen to be part of the BBC’s local democracy reporter scheme, but John is sceptical about how much benefit it will be to community journalism.

“We are not planning to host a reporter, but we are in the first tranche of applicants to have access to the copy. The proof will be in the pudding as to how useful that will be – it will depend on who manages the reporter and if they are interested in a small controversial application at a planning meeting.

“If they’re not, it won’t be covered and the copy won’t be of any use to hyperlocals.”