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It is a year since NESTA launched 'Destination Local', a £1 million investment fund aimed at stimulating next-generation hyperlocal media services in the UK.
Since then the UK’s nascent hyperlocal scene has witnessed a step change in activity and recognition from policy makers and funders alike. And while it may be too early to tell, the increasing penetration of smartphones may also mean that 2012 to 2013 was also the year in which UK hyperlocal media consumption began to become more mainstream.
This busy year began with the publication (by NESTA) of my landscape report 'Here and Now'; the first analysis of hyperlocal media in the UK. Research reports, it would seem, are like buses; you wait ages for one and then several arrive at once. Consistently during the course of the last 12 months each one has deepened our knowledge of the sector, both in terms of its size and its relationship with audiences.
After 'Here and Now', the next project out of the blocks was the latest set of annual Communications Market Reports published by Ofcom. These statistical doorstops have long been the bible for anyone working in the TV, radio, internet and telecoms industries. For those interested in hyperlocal media, the 2012 reports offered the first attempt to analyse the size of this industry in the UK – both in terms of the number of sites (432 as of May 2012 but having grown to 633 by February 2013), their geographic distribution and the size of their audience.
Ofcom's analysis concluded that "use of hyperlocal websites is growing", and reported that "around 1 in 7 (14 per cent) of people state that they use a local community website on at least a monthly basis".The UK’s nascent hyperlocal scene has witnessed a step change in activity and recognition from policy makers and funders alikeDamian Radcliffe
More recent research by NESTA into the demand for hyperlocal media services in the UK developed this understanding further still, revealing the often highly functional nature of hyperlocal media consumption. Amongst survey respondents, weather, news and entertainment were the most popular types of content being accessed.
NESTA’s latest research also highlighted the plurality of tools and services users harness to access this local news and information – ranging from search engines to social networks to find content, through to utilising a mixture of desktops, mobile and tablets to consume it.
SEO it would seem – as well as the need to have your content on a wide range of platforms – is clearly just as important for hyperlocal publishers as any other type of news outlet.
Alongside these reports, a longer 30-month research project, led by Cardiff University, into "understanding the value of the creative citizen" has provided us with our first evidence of the volume of hyperlocal publishing, as well as the types of content, these sites are producing.
During a 10-day sample period the analysis revealed that the UK hyperlocal sector produced 380 stories a day at a rate of 15 stories an hour. It also showed that the sector has a long tail. A third of the sites studied during this time frame were responsible for 75 per cent of all hyperlocal content being produced.
Perhaps not surprisingly much of this content focusses on community news, local politics and sport – broadly in line with the consumption patterns revealed by NESTA. Politicians, businesses and members of the public are the most commonly heard voices on hyperlocal sites. Community groups perhaps need to up their ante and engage with these media outlets more.
And while NESTA’s recent research shows that "the take-up of connected devices such as tablets and smartphones has been a driver behind the increased use of hyperlocal media", the past year has also shown that traditional methods of consumption remain popular with audiences.
For every innovation like Talk About Local’s augmented reality project, HypARlocal, there are also examples of sites demonstrating the resilience of older online community models.
This is particularly true for forums. One of the UK’s largest, the Sheffield Forum, is now 10 years old with more than 6.4 million posts in its archive; a number which is increasing at a rate of around 2,000 posts per day.
Print too has shown its longevity. In fact, in some areas, it seems to be having a resurgence. Online ventures such as the Brixton Blog and HU17.net, have embraced reverse publishing as a means to grow their audience – and their revenue.
More recently the Port Talbot Magnet and the Caerphilly Observer announced that they too are to join the ranks of hyperlocal publishers launching print editions. This may well become a more common trend in the coming year.
Other trends we can expect to see in the next 12 months include expansion efforts by successful publishers and increased efforts to capitalise on social networks beyond Twitter.
For the former, this may include partnership with commercial partners – such as Archant's collaboration with EverythingEppingForest.co.uk, or efforts like the Kentishtowner’s expansion South of the River and the decision by the team behind the Sheffield Forum to develop a ‘sister’ site – Leeds Forum – for their northern neighbour.
Expect too more efforts like those "to get Blog Preston’s Facebook page into shape". Facebook has 1 billion members worldwide and is simply too big to ignore.
This all paints an optimistic picture. And one which evidence increasingly suggests is justified. But, against this many of the time-honoured challenges faced by the sector remain.
Funding and commercial viability is still a challenge for many operators, and sustainability is often bound up in the fortunes – and the time – of a few. Stoke's PitsnPots is a good example of this. The site has (rightly) widely been held up as a beacon for the sector. However, it has sadly been mothballed since August last year, when a post was put up to say those behind it are "taking a break".
Meanwhile, just as it was last year, the elephant in the room remains Leveson. Although the DCMS has recently announced efforts to ensure that 'micro-business’ blogs are outside of the proposed new press regulation system, the picture is more complex.
Online-only operations may well choose to voluntarily opt into the system, thus ensuring they can benefit from incentives such as protection from exemplary damages and use of the regulator’s arbitral arm. But, as the Newspaper Society has noted, "if bloggers started to print and distribute their blogs, they would cease to be exempt from the scheme and be exposed to the heavy financial penalties for publishers outside of it".
Such a move may act as a disincentive to the sorts of hyperlocal publishing efforts we’ve seen emerging in the past 12 months; efforts which in many cases are integral to the financial sustainability of online operations. How these proposals – and further discussions about 'relevant publishers' – plays out may well determine whether the UK’s hyperlocal sector continues on a upward curve or not.
One thing is for sure, in the hyperlocal world, the next year is going to be interesting.
Damian Radcliffe is the author of 'Here and Now – UK hyperlocal media today', the UK's first review of this emerging sector. He is an honorary research fellow at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies and has spent much of the past 20 years working in local media, in a mix of content and policy roles. A former BBC staffer, he has also worked for Ofcom and led a Sony Award-winning partnership between BBC English Regions and the charity CSV. His research and writing on hyperlocal media can be found on his personal website.