Seamus McCauley, strategic analyst at Associated Northcliffe Digital, told an audience at City University that the company is developing a series of hyperlocal websites that 'combine social networking with news'. The first 30 sites will go live next month.
The initial six-month trial will target towns with populations of between 10,000 and 40,000 people that currently have no dedicated local newspaper or website.
"People can create profiles, network, blog and write the news," said McCauley.
"There is a real fear in the journalism industry about the future of local newsgathering. This at the moment is our hope for the answer.
"In every town, there will already be a person who writes match reports for football games, businesses who like to talk about their work, churches who host events every week. We want to co-ordinate that activity."
The sites will be overseen by 'community publishers', he explained, who will be responsible for 'keeping discussion live and active, looking after content, and gathering, researching and writing fresh news'.
"To make this work it's crucial to have people on the ground who can find, generate and curate the content," McCauley said.
He added that the sites will be powered by social networking software 'equivalent to Facebook' alongside Northcliffe's own news generation facilities. There will also be a central moderation team, who will monitor output across the network and give advice to the community publishers.
The 30 sites scheduled to launch in June will be concentrated in the south west of England and will stretch from Gloucestershire to Cornwall, including 10 towns in the Bristol area.
Associated Northcliffe Digital operates the online assets of Associated Newspapers and Northcliffe Media, including websites for the Daily Mail, the Evening Standard and Metro.
McCauley insisted the new hyperlocal sites would not be in competition with its existing network of regional websites under the ‘thisis’ brand. The publisher also publishes a series of postcode sites, automatically fed by content from a local title, for example the Nottingham Evening Post's websites.
"Where we've got Northcliffe content, we'll share it. But Northcliffe only touches around 12 per cent of the population. It's more interesting to see if this will work outside Northcliffe areas," he said.
"In every town, sooner or later a big issue comes up and local people will try and knock up a website very quickly. We want to set up these sites so that when an issue arises, they're already there.
"But they will also be a place to discuss minor issues and news. Newswires don't localise to that level and there are no aggregators that provide anything sensible for smaller towns.
"The question is, can we get a certain proportion of a town's population onto each site? This launch will show us."
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