These are some of the findings from a major new survey of 183 hyperlocal news producers (out of an estimated 500 in the UK), which was jointly carried out by researchers at Cardiff, Westminster and Birmingham City universities.
The study found that hyperlocal news sites "suffer from a lack of visibility in their own communities" but that despite the low number of economically successful projects, nine out of 10 site publishers are still confident they can sustain or grow their current operation.
The report's lead author, Andrew Williams, told Journalism.co.uk: "[Hyperlocal is] very nascent in its development as a cultural form. Overall I'm really quite optimistic given that this has been around as an online thing since the early 2000s.
"They're high in cultural value and citizenship value, but there's not an awful lot of money in this.
"You could see this as a sign that local community news is functioning on a voluntary basis. That may be the way that this is going on a local community level in terms of the news that we read."
However, the report warns that: "It remains the case that the overall lack of revenues being generated could threaten the longer-term sustainability of hyperlocal publishing.
"Many [publishers] told us that if they were unable to continue working on their sites in the future the news services would probably close."
Here are some of the key findings from the report, which can be found in full here.
Who does it?People are committing to it. There are a significant of number of blogs that have stuck at it for quite a long time.Andy Williams, report author
Almost half of the hyperlocal news producers surveyed had some form of journalistic training or media experience. Almost three quarters of their sites had existed for more than three years - and nearly a third for more than five years. Seven out of 10 said it was an active way of participating in their local community.
On the longevity figures, Williams said: "I was really surprised. I thought we'd find evidence of more churn – people moving away or stopping doing it. But people are committing to it. There are a significant of number of blogs that have stuck at it for quite a long time."
Almost six out of 10 respondents spent personally less than 10 hours a week on their sites. At the other end of the scale, 11 per cent worked more than 40 hours a week. Adding in other contributors' time, a third of sites demanded between 21 and 50 working hours a week, and a quarter used more than 50 hours.
What are they publishing?
The respondents pointed to a broad range of local community news: groups, events, planning and other government issues. A third of sites have started their own campaign on a local issue such as cuts to public services or council accountability.
The report also found a "significant minority" had carried out investigative journalism. Williams said: "I was afraid that people would shy away from that kind of accountability reporting. But I think there's quite significant reasons for optimism in that so many of them are just giving it a go and being active citizens and expressing that journalistically.
"But there are others who think that it's important that news producers are backed up by an institution – with resources and legal support and all the things that are there when things go wrong or get challenging."
A small group of high-performing community news sites are reaching between 10,000 and 100,000 monthly unique visitors. The median across all the sites surveyed was 5,039. The report states: "Most hyperlocal news sites suffer from a lack of visibility in their own communities, with only very few reaching a high percentage of their potential local audiences. But despite the visibility problem, large majorities of hyperlocal news producers continue to see audience growth on their own websites, as well as on key social media platforms."
Some 90 per cent of sites use Twitter and 79 per cent are on Facebook. As for boosting visibility, Williams sees established media potentially playing a role: "There are institutional players in the media that could help. The BBC could help by linking to hyperlocals more in their local and regional content. There's room for the BBC to help with the visibility issue.
"I think local newspaper publishers could also help. There's been perhaps a bit of distrust and worry about the competition from hyperlocals at a time when the publishing industry is under big pressure. There hasn't been as much openness as there could have been to hyperlocals.
How much money do they make?It’s difficult to grow the income – I’m not a sales person and would much rather be developing the site editoriallyOne survey respondent
78 per cent of sites cost less than £100 a month to run. Almost two-thirds of publishers met the site's costs entirely from their own pocket. The remaining third of sites generated revenue and, of these, three quarters made between £100 and £500 per month. This is mostly from advertising, although some sites had obtained grants or were selling sponsored features. Five sites generated over £2,000 a month.
Williams said: "There's a small group of emergent local news entrepreneurs here. They should pay attention to how they develop because that is where the possible future business models for local news come from."
What happens next?
Eight out of ten site owners wanted to grow, post more often, use more multimedia content or get more people involved. Other ambitions included better engagement on social media and generating more revenue. However, nearly three quarters of responds said there was a lack of time to expand further – especially on developing the revenue side.
One respondent explains: "The site has grown so much over the three and a half years it’s been going, so much that I struggle to stay on top of it.
"I’m looking to work two days a week on the site, paid for by advertising and other revenue, but it’s difficult to grow the income – I’m not a sales person and would much rather be developing the site editorially. I’d like to bid for grant funding but I’m not sure where to start."
Free daily newsletter
- Which metrics truly matter to improve your online content?
- Why The Independent launched the new user-focused i100
- How online publishers use quizzes to engage around topical stories
- Times Newspapers ordered to pay £60k damages in article update dispute
- Press+ study: Digital subscription charges up 40 per cent