Like many online local publishers, Lincolnshire’s news outlet The Lincolnite struggled to integrate a paywall with a solution for a direct relationship with readers, which would also give it control over ads and data harvesting.
That was 13 years ago. As no suitable product came up, the publisher embarked on a mission to create an all-encompassing system that would allow it to publish and monetise local content. Last month, its new website and app MyLocal Lincolnshire launched.
"We're challenging the social media algorithms that control what we see and are putting the power back into the hands of our readers," says Daniel Ionescu, founder and editor of MyLocal Lincolnshire.
The platform feels like Facebook, TikTok and Nextdoor thrown together. The posts are displayed in a sleek timeline that you can scroll indefinitely, peppered with TikTok-style videos and a few ads. Just like on a social network, users can react to stories with an emoji, comment and share. The user experience is miles away from the usual ad-heavy and messy local news websites; it is a two-way relationship rather than just a bunch of articles thrown at the reader.
Changing the way the news is made
Local journalists often spend their days rewriting press releases that could be just published as they are. MyLocal recognised that this is not the best use of journalistic skills and came up with a simple solution: allowing trusted sources like the police, council or firefighters post their announcements directly on the platform. Content is then simply viewed and approved by a human before going live.
"That has completely changed the way the newsroom looks at the news," says Ionescu, adding that this freed the journalists who can now focus on original reporting.
The platform also allows users to post content in their neighbourhood groups. This can be anything from announcements about missing cats and dogs to local events. These groups are community-moderated and readers are very engaged, according to Ionescu. Local readers can also contribute user-generated content.
Thrown into the mix are also national news stories from BBC News, Sky News and the Guardian to create a one-stop-shop for news. Add to this are jobs, property and event ads and it is easy to see why users would come to MyLocal for all the stories they need.
"We are re-bundling what has been de-bundled many years ago and no one managed to find a sustainable way to do just local stories," he continues.
Instead of needing to monitor many different sources - say Twitter for police announcements and Facebook for the latest from firefighters - MyLocal puts all the information under one social roof in a bid to attract scattered audiences.
The cost of sustainability
The development of MyLocal was initially self-financed. The second stage which included the creation of the app also attracted local investors from the area. Although Ionescu could not disclose the exact cost, the whole product swallowed close to half a million pounds so far. Developing an app was important though, as 87 per cent of The Lincolnite readers were coming from mobile devices.
With the help of the Financial Times's consulting arm FT Strategies, the team analysed the user needs of The Lincolnite readers. They identified four: update me, educate me, entertain me, and inspire me, in that order.
The effort paid off. Last month the website had 750,000 unique readers, which is pretty decent, considering that Lincolnshire has some 1.2 million inhabitants. Interestingly, about 30 per cent come from outside the county.
"Fly-bys are nice but they are a vanity metric," says Ionescu. "We are focusing on local people who buy from our local advertisers."
Personalisation has a lot to do with this success. When a user registers with a postcode, they immediately start receiving personalised content about their location.
In the first month since the launch of MyLocal, about 60 per cent of The Lincolnite superfans - people who visited five times a day - converted to new app users.
Ionescu hopes the trend will continue with the rest of the readers and expects most of them to adopt the new platform within the next six months. The Lincolnite website will then be archived so people can still access old content but for anything new they will be directed to MyLocal.