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In America, trials have begun to try to link hyperlocal news sites with larger media organisations, and find ways in which they can collaborate.

Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism at the American School of Communication, has been at the forefront of these projects.

In November last year the J-Lab published a report called Networked Journalism: What Works, outlining the findings of an initiative which partnered nine large news organisations around the US with local independent news sites.

They offered a $50,000 grant to the larger company as an incentive, and between $5,000 to $10,000 to the independent site.

While it has shown some success so far, there are some reservations about whether this method could work in Britain.

Of the nine trials, Schaffer said that "five have been very successful, two turned out OK, but two failed."

So why network in the first place?

Schaffer cited the issue of maintaining a good level of localised journalism in US mainstream media. "Mainstream media are downsizing, which means that community coverage and watchdog journalism becomes diminished". But, she added, "at the same time, the quality of news start-ups have improved."

So what advantages can networking bring?

As a mutually beneficial arrangement, the established organisation gets content it would not otherwise be able to produce, and the smaller sites are able to use the reputation of the host as a platform.

"The advantage for independent start-ups is that the traffic to the mainstream media sites gives them eyeballs," Schaffer said.

"If they get a photo on the home page of a mainstream site their own traffic will increase ten-fold.

"Some newspapers have put highlights from their partner blogs into Sunday editions, including anything from hard news to lifestyle blogs.

"This is helping to change old mentalities in the newsrooms."

Of course, there must be safeguards to protect the content of hyperlocal sites, which Schaffer terms "rules for stealing". She says that while "some of the biggest start-ups in the USA are freely giving away their content, these sites all have terms of use to protect their interests".

Under a network agreement, partner sites:
  • Cannot edit.
  • Cannot sell adverts against it.
  • Cannot sell it on.
  • Must give credit and link back.
"We are seeing various types of networks forming," she added. "Content sharing networks, investigative networks, and public media networks".

These partnerships are finding a variety of ways to coexist. "Some people are sharing their content and monetising it. The California Watch uses a system where members pay fees for sharing content. Sacramento is pioneering advertising networks, where they host advertising across all member sites and everyone gets a piece of the pie."

Not everyone is convinced that this model could work across the board in the UK until certain attitudes within the industry change.

Jo Kelly, communities editor for Trinity Mirror, said that although many of her titles host content from blogs and hyperlocal news sites, in reference to the wider industry she thinks "there has been a 'them' and 'us' so far between the blogs and the media".

"Until people come together and ask for collaboration that will never happen".

Richard Sambrook, director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University, agreed, adding: "I do not think the mainstream media have really opened up yet to the idea of working together in the UK."

But Schaffer encouraged those barriers to be broken down sooner rather than later.

"If you do not start to collaborate now you miss your opportunity. If it is not you today it is somebody else tomorrow.

"As the quality of independent news sites improves, in some cases editors feel a little threatened by it. They will either block them out or open the doors for them and figure out how to work together. The readers do not care where the content comes from. The only people who care about that are the journalists."

In summary, her five tips for a successful network:
  1. Generates business.
  2. Honours partner's interests. Everyone on an equal footing.
  3. Gives visibility to partners.
  4. Provides training.
  5. Needs a dedicated community editor.

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