As we have seen, UK hyperlocal media has enjoyed considerable growth and attention in the last year. Whether this growth is sustainable is a moot point. I believe that it is, but a number of structural considerations will continue to present challenges for some hyperlocal players.
These include sustainability (in terms of both personnel and income) and discoverability. Nonetheless, hyperlocal media is becoming a more established player in the local media landscape.
Looking ahead, there are five areas where the hyperlocal sector may wish to focus its attention:
Although these do exist, this is an area which is currently underdeveloped. BBC Online, which was recently criticised by the BBC Trust for the quality of its local offer, in particular, can play a key role in supporting the sector by linking to hyperlocal sources – broadening its depth of content in the process.
Alongside this, hyperlocal outlets can also work more effectively together – and with other media providers – on campaigns. It is perhaps surprising how seldom this occurs.
A collaborative project on graffiti between hyperlocal publishers and the Seattle Times shows how this can be done, although it must be noted that J-Lab encouraged this collaboration with initial funding and support. Similar incentives may be required here, although J-Lab's experience suggests that once the value of these partnerships has been proven they can grow. The Seattle Times now partners with 54 local news sites and blogs (as of November 2012).
2. Relationships with local councils
This area would also benefit from further development. This does not just include resolving issues around reporting access but also exploring opportunities for genuine two-way relationships. Many councils already benefit from content published on hyperlocal websites but this often feels like one-way traffic. Given the continued popularity of council websites, these publicly-owned sites could also link to a wider range of local material, including hyperlocal content and that produced by traditional online publishers, acting as a starting point to help to push users around the local media ecosystem.
3. A trade body to represent the sector
As the hyperlocal industry continues to grow and mature, it may find it beneficial to have a body which can provide publishers with a voice, and which can lead on work with government, policy makers and regulators. Given the 'cottage industry' nature of hyperlocal media – with many practitioners working in silos – this body could also help share best practice and promote cross-sector debate and discussion. By the same token, it could also lead on identifying and supporting training needs (such as SEO, html5 and writing a business plan), as well as establishing some much needed industry-wide audience data.
Funding such a body will probably not be easy, but the potential merits of such an organisation mean the idea is worth exploring. Having a more cohesive, unified, voice may be needed if hyperlocal media is to move to the next level.
4. If 'Content is King', are you offering what your people want?
In a content analysis undertaken last year by the Creative Citizens project, Andrew Williams observed that hyperlocal publishers produce 'a lot of stories about local councils and the services they provide,' noting:
"This kind of coverage of local government contrasts somewhat with the UK's mainstream local news media, which has scaled back its coverage of local politics in recent years."
The research showed that crime and business news, entertainment and the arts were also popular categories of content being produced. It would be interesting to see if these efforts by publishers are also reflected in the consumption habits of their audiences.
This research – along with insights from NESTA, such as their report into the Demand for Hyperlocal Media - may offer some valuable clues to publishers around where they may want to focus their editorial energies.
5. Accept that usage will vary, but that sometimes only local will do
Hyperlocal media – like local media before it – can really come into its own at times where mainstream media's 'bigger picture' is not local or specific enough.
The 2011 riots offered some good examples of this, with one site, The West Londoner, enjoying record traffic (1.9 million page views during that week, including 1 million page views during a single 24 hour period,) at that time. This was the hyperlocal equivalent of tuning into your local BBC radio station on a snowy day to see if your child's school is shut; or if the wrong sort of leaves risk affecting your commute.
Hyperlocal websites already play a role in providing timely information to citizens and cost-effective advertising opportunities for local businesses. As with any other form of local media, they can also help to reflect local identity and ensure that local businesses and government are held to account.
Their role looks like it will only become more prominent due to a combination of mobile technology and a greater awareness of the availability of these sites, and the value they bring to local communities. Partnerships, promotion and regular site audits can all play a role in helping to further establish this nascent sector, and ensuring that publishers get maximum bang for their hyperlocal buck.
Of course usage – and availability – of these sites will always fluctuate and publishers and policy-makers alike need to be aware of this. Arguably, this is inevitable to some extent given the niche nature of many hyperlocal sites and the issues they cover, as well as the volunteer-led nature of many sites. Nonetheless, the UK's local media ecosystem is showing itself to be stronger as a result of the presence of hyperlocal media. Long may that continue.
- This is a specially adapted extract from What Do We Mean by Local? edited by John Mair with Richard Lance Keeble and Neil Fowler, which was published by Abramis on 1 September.
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.