Local newspapers need to become hyperlocal community sites if they are to make the transition to the digital age, according to online news veteran Steve Yelvington.

Speaking at the Ifra Newsroom summit in London today, the strategist told delegates that the long decline in newspaper readership has been caused not just by the internet, but by a complex accumulation of social and technological influences including radio, TV, cable and satellite alternatives.

In response, news sites need to focus the personal, social and local interest at the heart of their local communities. A successful web publication needs to reinforce rather than compete with its print partner, so publishers must construct a new vision for their online proposition.

"An automobile is not just a horseless carriage," said Mr Yelvington, strategist for US local media group Morris DigitalWorks.

"The internet is fundamentally a participatory medium and can empower members of the community to participate."

A hyperlocal news site should become a village green of conversation. Using a case study of local US news site BlufftonToday.com, Mr Yelvington showed news published alongside blog platforms for residents, photo galleries, an events calendar and recipe database - all of which the community can contribute to.

Mr Yelvington said that the political dimension to this project is in its social capital; the measure of the connectivity and trust in its community. In this case, citizen journalism is less about news and more about engaging the community in conversation.

Bluffton's residents are breaking out of their large, gated estates to engage and discuss with other people. Regular issues include traffic problems for example, where reports and concerns from the usership feed into coverage in the print newspaper and are often addressed online directly by the officials responsible.

In another example, over a four-week period one woman had investigated, discussed and co-ordinated a new mothers' group as she moved into the area, all organised through BlufftonToday.

"This content brings a layer of life into the product that is often lost in the reflection of the community that we present," said Mr Yelvington.

"Content is dominated by things like official events and crime - those events are true but the composite picture of life is false.

"This restores the balance by allowing them to bring in their lives in this way."

In the four months since launch, BlufftonToday.com registered 1,000 blog posts, 4,000 uploaded photos and 5,600 comments. Users become 'married' to the site once they comment because they want to follow the subsequent discussion, so the interactive audience has become a loyal one. Meanwhile print readership has risen to the highest figures for decades.

BlufftonToday still faces major challenges, not least educating staff on the print newspaper about the site: "About six staff understand it - the rest are like deer in headlights."

The publishers are also trying to tackle the problem of how to apply the model to larger communities, and how to effectively monetise the different elements of the community site.

But competitors are already copying the BlufftonToday model, which Mr Yelvington says has come from nowhere to dominate the local market.

His advice is simple: "Have clear goals for your site and tell users about those goals, invite them to participate and ask for their help and don't be afraid to lead the conversation or intervene when necessary."

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