Ultra-local could herald new 'golden age' for journalism

This feature first appeared in Press Gazette magazine.

Journalists starting community news websites as one-man bands now have a real prospect of creating publishing businesses which can pay them a living wage.

The blogging technology behind such sites is cheap, easy to use and increasingly sophisticated looking. And most importantly the advertising is out there.

US-based Mark Potts is a former co-founder of Washington Post Digital. He’s had stints running the digital division of Reed Business Magazines in the US, and the Philadelphia Inquirer’s website, but since 2004 he has been devoting his efforts to ultra local web ventures.

Why? Because he believes ultra-local online journalism is an idea who’s time has come.

He is CEO of a new venture called Growthspur which provides commercial and technological back-up for ultra-local ventures in exchange for a share of revenue.

In the US, the media recession has been even worse than in the UK – with up to 15,000 journalists paid off according to some estimates.

Potts says: “We believe very strongly that there’s a revolution happening in local media with more and more hyperlocal independent sites. We want to support that development. What we want to do is really provide the tools.”

When it comes to national or international websites, millions of readers are often needed to have anything like a viable business. But at the local level the numbers are a lot more reachable.

Potts says: “It’s about advertising that moves people into the shops. It starts with display – that’s the simplest kind of advertising, then we move on to contextual advertising and behavioural targeting. So the advertising lines up with the topic.”

So how much hard cash are we talking about?

Potts believes that a US local news website covering a population of 50,000, which generates 20,000 unique users a month (an eminently achievable target) should be able to generate $100,000 of revenue a year.

And the start-up costs?

“It is no more than the cost of starting a blog on WordPress or Typepad. The tools are out there and are somewhere between free and very inexpensive.”

It may not feel like it for many, but Potts says he believes we are in a “a golden age of journalism”.

“We are in an era when you don’t need to buy the big expensive press any more. You can use a blog to get your word out. It’s creating a real democratisation of the media now with thousands of flowers blooming.

“It’s creating all these opportunities for people to be entrepreneurs. If you are solo operator with a site bringing in $100,000 a year you may make more money on an entrepreneurial site that you would working for a big paper.”

UK ultra-local sites are already paying their own way

In the UK, the big publishers have been quick to catch on to the possibilities of ultra-local blog-style sites. Trinity Mirror in Teesside, Newsquest in Glasgow and Northcliffe in the South West have all set up ultra local website networks with a strong emphasis on user-generated content.

Time will tell whether the big players, with their economies of scale, can make it viable.

But there are already some impressive examples of independent local news websites which paying their own way.

In West London, a company called Neighbour Net runs nine news websites based around postcode sized districts and employs 11 people. Most are part time and so far only its original and most successful site, ChiswickW4, as a full-time editor.

It attracts over 50,000 unique users a month and has 15,000 residents signed up to receive a weekly email newsletter.

Neighbour Net provides the website templates and hosting as well as billing, sales and marketing support for editors who are paid based on revenue and site traffic.

Neighbournet has been running since 2000. The sites are based on a mixture of news with an emphasis on lifestyle and going out, a what’s on guide and a local services directory. Readers have to register in order to receive email alerts and use some of the features – such as the discussion forums.

Neighbour Net director Sean Kelly says: “The revenue is there for ultra local sites but it’s very tough to get it.

“If you go back five or six years the biggest factor in terms of local media spend would have been local authorities. That’s disappearing very quickly. In the west of London we’ve got council owned newspapers that they have been set up to take the majority of council media spending. Public sector spending is about one per cent of our revenue.

“Chiswick became something which could start to support a full-time editor when it got to 4,000 or 5,000 visitors a day.”

Sheila Profit is Neighbour Net’s latest recruit. She’s a journalist with more than 30 years experience in national newspapers and magazines having worked on The Sun, Daily Mirror and News of the World.

Since February she has been editing Neighbour Net’s newest site – FulhamSW6.

She still freelances for the nationals and is being paid a retainer by Neighbour Net while the site gets up and running.

“It’s very interesting to see the way things are changing and to be part of it. Covering all the local tittle tattle is lots of fun. I’ve been in journalism all my life and I think this is a very interesting area to be in.”

Profit writes around two or three stories a day and says she now finds herself scouring lamp-posts, shop windows and notice boards for posters and possible story leads.

She says: “You start out with a lot of council stories because they send out endless press releases. We have some property news, some real news stories – like a recent gas explosion – a bit of celebrity gossip, what local charities and groups are doing, local events , light-hearted stories.

“We had one story about a resident who’s been on about a cockatoo that is lost in Fulham, he had signs up everywhere. People said you’ll never find it but he did.

“It’s a story that would never make anything other than at the ultra local level really.”

London SE1: Makes money and covers stories which affect people’s lives

Elsewhere in the Capital, London SE1 is another example of a thriving ultra-local news-led website.

It was launched ten years ago by James Hatts with help from his father Leigh who runs a local listings mag with the same name.

It covers the area around the Southbank in London – which has been booming in recent years following the opening of the Tate Modern and the London Eye.

Hatts concentrates on the editorial side of the site and is the first to admit that much more could be done to commercialise it. It carries ads driven by the Google Ad-Sense system and it makes money via small commissions from bookings made to some of the restaurants and hotels which appear on its directory pages.

But even with this minimal commercial effort, Hatts says London SE1 generates more than enough income to cover its costs and pay him a full time wage.

It has 7,000 subscribers to its weekly emails and up to 150,000 unique visitors a month.

Hatts says: “We are very much news led and news driven. Even with two fairly good local newspapers covering the same territory we find there’s a lot of stories which effect people’s lives in a big way that if it wasn’t for us would never get covered.

“I’m proud of the way that we keep tabs on what’s going on at the council. We’ve been keeping track of the Elephant and Castle regeneration which is a £1.5bn project. Quite often I might be the only reporter there at council meetings that deal with this. We do our own news and that’s very important to us.”

James said that the three main planks of London-SE1’s content are: news, the discussion boards and the what’s on guide to local events.

He says: “Over ten years we’ve built up a significant online community of local residents who get together to talk about all kinds of things and who get together in person to do things with each other.

“There’s everything from book clubs and a knitting group to a make-your-own-cider group.”

Hatts says his site has been able to survive the recession unscathed by keeping its costs very low.

Now aged 28, he started working on the site when he was doing his A-levels, and decided to try running it full time when he finished university: “five years down the line I’m still here and seems to be worth pursuing”.

He says: “There’s a very exciting future for local journalism. People have just got to seize the opportunities that are there.

“Inevitably it will be more collaborative and more of a mix of professional journalism and user-generated content.

“Sometimes when you go to conferences on the future of journalism there’s a lot of hand-wringing. People need to stop talking and get on with it. It’s not that difficult and it’s good fun.”

The US-based West Seattle blog

West Seattle blog is one of the more successful ultra local sites in the US.

Launched by Patrick Sand and his wife Tracy Record three and half years ago it has been a commercial business for two years.

Sand’s background is in advertising while Record was formerly a TV journalist.

Covering a community of 75,000, Sand says the blog attracts around 20,000 visitors a week.

In terms of cash, it pays enough money to the pair for them both to work on it full time, and the also pay freelance journalists between $50 and $100 a job.

In March this year Seattle lost one of its two daily newspapers when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer closed. Sand said the blog was launched as a reaction to the fact that much of what was happening in their neighbourhood was not being covered by the existing media.

It nowadays carries a steady stream of stories about local politics, planning issues, restaurants, schools, traffic and crime. It also has a pets lost and found section, traffic news and a popular selection of forums which have so far attracted more than 30,000 posts.

As well as display advertising the site carries classified ads and discount coupons which can be printed out and taken in to local businesses.

Asked what advice he has for would-be ultra-local bloggers, Sand says: “You have to run it without any expectation of having any kind of income for at least six months and probably a year. You can’t make people buy something they’ve never seen.

“We had about 3,000 readers a day before we approached anyone about advertising. I worked in radio advertising for 30 years and I see this as selling radio advertising you can see.”

New Jersey-based Baristanet

Baristanet in New Jersey is another pioneering journalist-owned and run local blog news site in the US.

It covers three towns in New Jersey with a combined population of 90,000 and attracts around 8,000 to 9,000 visitors a day, around 80,000 uniques a month.

It has a dozen people working on it and generates a six figure income.

Baristanet has been going for five years and was founded by Debbie Galant, a former columnist for the New York Times who has been a journalist for more than 20 years.

She says: “It’s like a small business, like a pizzeria or something like that. It supports a bunch of people working part time, we’ve got real ads and real ad money coming in.

“We’re not putting the local paper out of business but we think we might make them sharpen up their game a little.”

The site’s income comes from a mixture of display and classified advertising. The editorial is a lively mix of blog posts written in an informal style. It also carries discussion forums and a comprehensive what’s-on calendar.

Galant says: “A big part of the appeal is the interactive element. A lot of people come on the site and comment, there are people who are on the site more than we are.”

Baristanet has carved out a successful niche despite having five paid-for weekly newspapers on its patch.

When asked what her advice to UK ultra-local bloggers is, Galant says: “Don’t count on making any money for a while, it takes a couple of years. Do everything you can to get readership up before you start to worry about adverts. Once you have the readership the advertising will follow automatically.

“Readers are our best sales people, they will go into a slot and say have you been on Baristanet?”

She adds: “I think personalisation of content is a good idea. There is a lot of people who do something like this that are kind of bland. You don’t want bland.”

Galant says: “We’ve created our own little economy and we are really proud of the that.” But she adds: “The health insurance comes from my husband who works for AP.”

Ultra-local journalism will be high on the agenda at Local Heroes 2010, a conference Press Gazette is organising in conjunction with Kingston University on the future of local news:
Local Heroes 2010: Future of local news conference

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