When assistant editor Richard Coulter and advertising manager Emma Cooper were leaving their positions at the Bristol Evening Post, they bumped into each other in the lift. There was a brief chat and a loose plan was hatched. Coulter had seen A5 advertising booklets jam-packed with advertising – and wondered if there might be an opportunity. Could they merge Coulter's journalistic background with Cooper’s sales skills and create something new? The monthly Filton Voice was born soon after. Wind the clock forward eight years and the Local Voice Network has six publishers and eighteen publications, most dotted around Bristol with one in Wells and another in Worcester, some delivered to 12,000 homes.
On the other side of the country, journalist Michael Casey had left the Thurrock Gazette and was pursuing a developing interest in shooting and editing video. It led him to start the website YourThurrock and, in 2013, YourHarlow. YourThurrock has more than two million page views a year, YourHarlow almost 1.5 million.
These are just two success stories from the thriving and rich mix of community publications that stretch from Cornwall Reports to the Shetland News.
There are more than 400 active hyperlocal titles which operate independently, usually with one or two staff.
These titles have grown steadily in the last ten years, during which time 300 local newspapers have closed, circulation has halved and advertising revenues have fallen by 75 per cent.
Those running newspaper groups now focus mainly on the orderly management of decline – longevity, sustaining profits by cutting costs until the inevitable happens. Those running hyperlocal titles are concentrating on growing their businesses and revenues. So, are we witnessing a major shift in the way communities are covered?
Emma Meese, director of the Independent Community News Network (ICNN), certainly thinks so: “Independent community news outlets are fulfilling the traditional role of the fourth estate in local civic society. Audiences want local knowledge, intimacy, trust, connections. They want to know who their local journalist is. They want to get involved, to see a recognisable face.
"Audiences want what hyperlocals are offering and are increasingly turning away from high-powered, ad-driven alternatives that are concentrated in just a few companies.
"In many areas, the hyperlocals are the only journalists attending council meetings, planning meetings and magistrates courts and holding those in power to account."
Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism (C4CJ) set up ICNN a year ago. It is managed by Meese, a former BBC producer, and ex-news agency journalist Matt Abbott who is the communications officer. It is funded by the university and C4CJ was awarded a €250,000 grant from Google’s Digital News Initiative last summer to create a UK-wide hyperlocal news agency. ICNN’s role is to lobby for the publishers and offer consultancies on media law, funding and new media. It has almost 100 members, including the Bristol Cable, Wrexham.com, West Leeds Dispatch, the Caerphilly Observer and the Lincolnite.
So, with 400 titles and an energetic support organisation, hyperlocal here we come – the answer to the local newspaper problem. It isn’t that easy of course and there are enormous challenges. The top three are:
1. Funding and costs
Hyperlocal publications have to be funded. Who pays for the journalism? ICNN’s Abbott says: "Making a hyperlocal site sustainable can be hard work. There is no one solution that works.” He adds: "Because many of these titles are run by individuals with full-time jobs and family commitments, there is a very real risk of burn-out."
Some hyperlocals are partly funded by donations from the community. The Shetland News, for example, raised £20,000 last year for its website upgrade.
There is also a strong argument that public funding should be used to help local publishers. The Welsh government started the ball rolling with a £200,000 start-up grant to fund journalists who want to set up a news business. Others will hopefully follow.
Despite the challenges, there are enterprises that successfully stand alone. Casey more than keeps his head above water. Ad revenue is enhanced by selling stories and other services – there are thousands of YourThurrock movies on YouTube.
As with the national and regional papers – print models seem to generate the most ad revenue. I picked up a Filton Voice – an A4 stapled news magazine on high-quality newsprint – which had more than 60 display adverts plus classified in its 48 pages. There were five full-page adverts. A full-page ad sells for £270 with discounts for regular bookings or adverts going in more than one publication. The Voice titles work on a franchise model and have seven sales staff. There are more costs attached to print than online, of course. Staffing, design and printing all need to be paid for. Distribution – delivering 12,000 magazines using local people – is a big cost too. The bottom line though, as Coulter says, is that some of the Voice's six publishers work part-time. It isn’t their hobby – it’s their job.
2. Journalism standards
The Voice network and YourThurrock / Harlow, like most hyperlocals, are committed to covering not only the parish councils but neighbourhood schemes, potholes, recycling days, remembrance services, nativities and to giving platforms to people. The Filton Voice, for example, is very impressive. It looks professional, reads well and covers a huge range of topics. It campaigns too.
Dr Andy Williams of Cardiff University’s school of journalism certainly believes hyperlocal journalists are of a good standard: “They run, or help publicise, local campaigns to ensure citizens can effect change where they live. But they also offer new benefits. For instance, they cover areas that are too small to get much attention and serve local audiences too limited to be commercially profitable. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area covered by one of these hyperlocals, chances are you now have a go-to space to get up-to-the-minute information if snow hits town, if a riot breaks out, if you want to meet like-minded people, help out in the community or join a local club or society.”
Casey makes another point. He is motivated by a love of history and believes he is creating a record that would otherwise not exist. “If I closed down on Saturday, I’d like to think that if anybody went to our archive of 36,000 stories in ten years, they’d find something of use about life in Thurrock between 2008 and 2018."
There is, without doubt, plenty to commend community journalism but there are also issues.
Not all community start-ups are produced by experienced journalists. Can a one-man operation really cover the courts, tackle the wrong-doers or have the deep-pockets needed to defend substantial legal threats? Those living in the community they are writing about are also probably less likely to rock the boat. Meese says: "There is a belief, among some in the industry, that for every one excellent hyperlocal, there are ten bad ones. One quote on an industry website was 'wearing a stethoscope doesn’t make you a doctor.’ There are bad practices in every sector but on the whole, the quality and reputation of the hyperlocal news sector is growing, reaching parity with larger competitors, and in some cases, outperforming them.” All of ICNN’s members adhere to the Editor's Code of Practice or the Impress Standards Code.
Many hyperlocal publishers smart at being seen as amateurs. When the BBC issued contracts for local democracy reporters, hyperlocal publishers were largely bypassed. In November, Facebook limited its community news partnership to the five big publishers. There is also a problem with access. Abbott says: "Access to hustings, election counts, crime scenes, coroner’s courts, sporting, royal, and celebrity events is still, in the main, restricted to those who have the luxury of carrying a Press card."
Coulter sums it up neatly: "Sometimes it feels like the classic Corbett / Barker / Cleese sketch about class - with the hyperlocals very much portrayed by the bigger boys as lower class and needing to 'know their place'.
"For years, the regionals suffered this at the hands of the sniffy nationals and now it's being passed down to us. The interesting thing is that I don't believe the public or the hyperlocal publishers see it that way. Our role is to get very close to people's lives and the things that actually matter to them.
"There will be a better media for all if there was an understanding that we all have different but equally important roles.”
With the sector growing and the weight of the ICNN lobby, recognition will surely come. Society of Editors executive director Ian Murray accepts that change is inevitable. He says: "The rapidly changing face of journalism and the media means we should not place journalists from established mainstream news providers in a safe place, a club where newcomers are kept outside. Yet providing accreditation for all would create severe problems for such bodies as the police, the courts and other bodies as well as the industry as a whole if it is to retain its reputation for providing real not fake news.
"The next steps would seem to be a review of the current accreditation system with a view to welcoming more journalists into the fold while not diluting standards."
Some of the hyperlocal titles I have seen are very impressive. They largely cover the minutiae of reporting that has disappeared from many newspapers. In some ways, these publishers resemble the 19th century entrepreneurs who started titles that were then swallowed up by large groups and turned into big businesses. Now, with the model unable to keep the money rolling in, we are coming full circle and a return to local ownership looks inevitable. Hyperlocals are certainly here to stay and offer a healthy addition to the mix. They will need help, investment, support and standards will need to be maintained. But all those I spoke to bring good qualities to the news-gathering table – a work ethic, commitment, belief, an entrepreneurial spirit and, most importantly, a real passion for what they do. How can they possibly fail?