Policy makers, communities and journalists increasingly understand the value provided by this growing cohort of ultra-local news and information providers; and 2015 looks likely to continue this upward trend.
Here are five developments in this space that I expect to see in the year ahead.
1. Partnerships will become increasingly prominent
I’ve argued for some time that the long-term health of the sector will be hugely dependent on partnerships. Without them this cottage industry risks suffering from lack of scale and profile.
It is against this backdrop that we have already seen some welcome developments in 2015. The recommendation, made in The Future of News report, that “the BBC should link from its website to a broader range of hyperlocal media organisations” is as welcome as it is long overdue. Hopefully this proposal, which the authors note “should be achieved as a matter of priority,” will finally ensure that the BBC’s myriad of local services deep link to community outlets in their patch.
In doing this, Auntie can help to drive further traffic to these sites as well as provide an informal endorsement about the public value and journalistic credibility of these sites.
And the BBC isn’t the only mainstream organisation which can benefit from these types of relationships. Beleaguered Local TV operators, several of whom are struggling to achieve the quotas for original programming in their Ofcom awarded licenses, are one such group.
Meanwhile, as manifest in last year’s tie up between The City Talking and Yorkshire Evening Post, as well as earlier efforts such as Archant's collaboration with EverythingEppingForest.co.uk, print publishers can benefits from these partnerships too.
2015 is likely to herald more such links; and hopefully some good examples of cross-sector (hyperlocal to hyperlocal) activity too; as this is an area ripe for development in terms of tackling joint campaigns, group advertising and other areas where such partnerships could unlock some potentially highly beneficial economies of scale.
2. Funding will continue to be a challenge
Not all hyperlocal publishers are out to make money, but obviously some players hope to make a living from their efforts. Although the number of people able to do this is growing, the financial sustainability of the sector remains a key issue for many players.
Research published in 2014 by the Cardiff University led Creative Citizens project found that only 13 per cent of UK hyperlocal practitioners claim to generate more than £500 a month. A further 12 per cent say they make less than £100 per month, which can cover costs like hosting etc. but severely limits opportunities for further technical and editorial expansion.
As a result, many hyperlocal publishers need to identify different ways to supplement their income; often providing copywriting, design, hosting, or social media services to help bridge financial gaps. The past year however showed that there’s potentially another way. Crowdfunding.
Although not the panacea for this issue, sites such as A Little Bit of Stone and Brixton Blog have successfully shown that their local communities were happy to pay for content, or certainly people who help to make content. I anticipate we will see more hyperlocals trying to ride this wave in 2015.
The jury is still out on viable enduring solutions to the sectors on-going need for cash.
The Carnegie Trust and Talk About Local argued last year that public funding should be diverted to meet this end. Some of their suggestions – such as those around public notices – are a good idea, but in a continued era of austerity new intervention (rather than substitution, or the opening up of existing funding pots to also potentially include hyperlocals) seems unlikely.
Subsequently, I wouldn’t expect DCMS, DCLG or anyone else to create a hyperlocal equivalent of the Community Radio Fund any time soon, even if a case can be made for using such a pot to act as a seed – or match – funder for the sector.
Instead, the sector will have to continue to stand on its own two feet, although there might be opportunities to tap into funding to support efforts which promote digital inclusion, digital literacy and community engagement at a grass-roots level.
3. The General Election offers a great opportunity
The rise of UKIP, the expected routing of the Liberal Democrats and the strong likelihood of hung Parliament, means that the 2015 General Election may be the most exciting one in living memory.
In such a dynamic and uncertain political climate, the need for informed citizens is greater than ever. Hyperlocal media can play an integral role in helping to educating voters, providing relevant targeted coverage in a manner that traditional media cannot.
In the past we’ve seen examples of this in Saddleworth and Hertfordshire, with many hyperlocals also covering last year’s European elections in depth too. I expect many hyperlocals to have a good election. That said, many publishers also have also previously reported that they endured significant access issues.
So, if the Electoral Commission, candidates and political parties are to seriously address voter apathy and issues related to a democratic deficit, then they need to recognise that the role that this emerging tier of reporting can play in informing voters and holding authority to account.
That means granting them equal access to their press card carrying colleagues, treating publishers – and their audiences – with respect, and engaging with these outlets in the same way as any other.
Alongside this, mainstream local media outlets – across print, radio, TV and online – should also recognise that the level of localised reporting being provided by these hyperlocal players can also offer an additional layer of granularity that their audiences may find both useful and informative.
There are great opportunities for cross-linking and content sharing in this space. It’s possible, that in some cases, the Election will be the catalyst for this type of regular relationship between hyperlocals and other media makers.
4. The sector will continue to grow
In the past year we’ve seen a number of successful new entrants join the hyperlocal fray. Sites such as East Grinstead Online and Alt Reading have quickly established themselves as part of their local media scene.
Many of the tools which allow sites to be easily created – WordPress, Wix, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – have been around for some time. But as user confidence in the ability to use and harness these tools grows, so we can confidently expect that more sites will come online.
Again the General Election might provide the stimulus for some new entrants. If we also see some of the types of partnerships I’ve suggested above, these too will help to stimulate the growth of the sector. After all, nothing breeds success like success.
5. Increased opportunities to learn from one another
Alongside an increased profile for hyperlocal publishers, 2015 will see a further series of publications and other efforts which highlight hyperlocal successes, as well as promote opportunities for learning, networking, training and mutual support.
This increasingly rich repository of case studies and opportunities to examine the potential – and impact – of hyperlocal media and community journalism in the UK is still a relatively recent phenomenon. Examples to look forward to in the next 12 months include Cardiff University’s rebooted MOOC in Community Journalism, Talk About Local’s #TAL15 unconference and the Online Journalism Blog’s on-going series of interviews with hyperlocal publishers.
These assets will continue to provide an expanding source of ideas for new and existing hyperlocals, as well as policy practitioners exploring issues such as media plurality and the future of public service broadcasting.
As a result of these elements I am enthusiastic about the fact that 2015 has the potential to be the best year for UK hyperlocal media yet. I look forward to seeing that promise being fulfilled
Damian Radcliffe is a freelance consultant, journalist and researcher. He is the author of Here and Now the UK’s first review of the hyperlocal media sector and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Culture and Media Studies, the UK’s oldest J-School.
You can see examples of Damian’s research into hyperlocal media and community journalism on his portfolio website.
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