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‘Hyperlocal media is coming in from the cold’
Posted: 1 May 2013 By: Damian Radcliffe
It is a year since NESTA launched ’Destination Local‘, a £1 million investment fund aimed at stimulating next-generation hyperlocal media services in the UK.Since then the UK’s nascent hyperlocal scene has witnessed a step change in activity and recognition from policy makers and funders alike. And while it may be too early to tell, the increasing penetration of smartphones may also mean that 2012 to 2013 was also the year in which UK hyperlocal media consumption began to become more mainstream.
This busy year began with the publication (by NESTA) of my landscape report ‘Here and Now‘; the first analysis of hyperlocal media in the UK. Research reports, it would seem, are like buses; you wait ages for one and then several arrive at once. Consistently during the course of the last 12 months each one has deepened our knowledge of the sector, both in terms of its size and its relationship with audiences.
After ‘Here and Now’, the next project out of the blocks was the latest set of annual Communications Market Reports published by Ofcom. These statistical doorstops have long been the bible for anyone working in the TV, radio, internet and telecoms industries.
For those interested in hyperlocal media, the 2012 reports offered the first attempt to analyse the size of this industry in the UK – both in terms of the number of sites (432 as of May 2012 but having grown to 633 by February 2013), their geographic distribution and the size of their audience.Ofcom’s analysis concluded that ”use of hyperlocal websites is growing”, and reported that “around 1 in 7 (14 per cent) of people state that they use a local community website on at least a monthly basis”.
More recent research by NESTA into the demand for hyperlocal media services in the UK developed this understanding further still, revealing the often highly functional nature of hyperlocal media consumption. Amongst survey respondents, weather, news and entertainment were the most popular types of content being accessed.
NESTA’s latest research also highlighted the plurality of tools and services users harness to access this local news and information – ranging from search engines to social networks to find content, through to utilising a mixture of desktops, mobile and tablets to consume it.
SEO it would seem – as well as the need to have your content on a wide range of platforms – is clearly just as important for hyperlocal publishers as any other type of news outlet.Alongside these reports, a longer 30-month research project, led by Cardiff University, into ”understanding the value of the creative citizen” has provided us with our first evidence of the volume of hyperlocal publishing, as well as the types of content, these sites are producing.
During a 10-day sample period the analysis revealed that the UK hyperlocal sector produced 380 stories a day at a rate of 15 stories an hour. It also showed that the sector has a long tail. A third of the sites studied during this time frame were responsible for 75 per cent of all hyperlocal content being produced.Perhaps not surprisingly much of this content focusses on community news, local politics and sport – broadly in line with the consumption patterns revealed by NESTA. Politicians, businesses and members of the public are the most commonly heard voices on hyperlocal sites. Community groups perhaps need to up their ante and engage with these media outlets more.
And while NESTA’s recent research shows that “the take-up of connected devices such as tablets and smartphones has been a driver behind the increased use of hyperlocal media”, the past year has also shown that traditional methods of consumption remain popular with audiences.
For every innovation like Talk About Local’s augmented reality project, HypARlocal, there are also examples of sites demonstrating the resilience of older online community models.This is particularly true for forums. One of the UK’s largest, the Sheffield Forum, is now 10 years old with more than 6.4 million posts in its archive; a number which is increasing at a rate of around 2,000 posts per day.
Print too has shown its longevity. In fact, in some areas, it seems to be having a resurgence. Online ventures such as the Brixton Blog and HU17.net, have embraced reverse publishing as a means to grow their audience – and their revenue.More recently the Port Talbot Magnet and the Caerphilly Observer announced that they too are to join the ranks of hyperlocal publishers launching print editions. This may well become a more common trend in the coming year.
Other trends we can expect to see in the next 12 months include expansion efforts by successful publishers and increased efforts to capitalise on social networks beyond Twitter.
For the former, this may include partnership with commercial partners – such as Archant’s collaboration with EverythingEppingForest.co.uk, or efforts like the Kentishtowner’s expansion South of the River and the decision by the team behind the Sheffield Forum to develop a ‘sister’ site – Leeds Forum – for their northern neighbour.
Expect too more efforts like those “to get Blog Preston’s Facebook page into shape”. Facebook has 1 billion members worldwide and is simply too big to ignore.This all paints an optimistic picture. And one which evidence increasingly suggests is justified. But, against this many of the time-honoured challenges faced by the sector remain.Funding and commercial viability is still a challenge for many operators, and sustainability is often bound up in the fortunes – and the time – of a few. Stoke’s PitsnPots is a good example of this. The site has (rightly) widely been held up as a beacon for the sector. However, it has sadly been mothballed since August last year, when a post was put up to say those behind it are “taking a break”.
Meanwhile, just as it was last year, the elephant in the room remains Leveson. Although the DCMS has recently announced efforts to ensure that ‘micro-business’ blogs are outside of the proposed new press regulation system, the picture is more complex.
Online-only operations may well choose to voluntarily opt into the system, thus ensuring they can benefit from incentives such as protection from exemplary damages and use of the regulator’s arbitral arm. But, as the Newspaper Society has noted, “if bloggers started to print and distribute their blogs, they would cease to be exempt from the scheme and be exposed to the heavy financial penalties for publishers outside of it”.
Such a move may act as a disincentive to the sorts of hyperlocal publishing efforts we’ve seen emerging in the past 12 months; efforts which in many cases are integral to the financial sustainability of online operations. How these proposals – and further discussions about ‘relevant publishers’ – plays out may well determine whether the UK’s hyperlocal sector continues on a upward curve or not.
One thing is for sure, in the hyperlocal world, the next year is going to be interesting.
Damian Radcliffe is the author of ‘Here and Now – UK hyperlocal media today’, the UK’s first review of this emerging sector. He is an honorary research fellow at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies and has spent much of the past 20 years working in local media, in a mix of content and policy roles. A former BBC staffer, he has also worked for Ofcom and led a Sony Award-winning partnership between BBC English Regions and the charity CSV. His research and writing on hyperlocal media can be found on his personal website.
This builds on some of the themes explored in my report for NESTA, in particular issues of inclusion, media habits and the merits of particular business models.
However, it also includes new examples and analysis which I hope will be of interest. I will cross post the article here in due course.
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In this guest post, Damian Radcliffe highlights some recent developments in the intersection between hyper-local SoLoMo (social, location, mobile). His more detailed slides looking at 20 developments across the sector during the last two months of 2011 are cross-posted at the bottom of this article.
Facebook’s recent purchase of location-based service Gowalla (Slide 19 below,) suggests that the social network still thinks there is a future for this type of “check in” service. Touted as “the next big thing” ever since Foursquare launched at SXSW in 2009, to date Location Based Services (LBS) haven’t quite lived up to the hype.
Certainly there’s plenty of data to suggest that the public don’t quite share the enthusiasm of many Silicon Valley investors. Yet.
Part of their challenge is that not only is awareness of services relatively low – just 30% of respondents in a survey of 37,000 people by Forrester (Slide 27) – but their benefits are also not necessarily clearly understood.
In 2011, a study by youth marketing agency Dubit found about half of UK teenagers are not aware of location-based social networking services such as Foursquare and Facebook Places, with 58% of those who had heard of them saying they “do not see the point” of sharing geographic information.
Safety concerns may not be the primary concern of Dubit’s respondents, but as the “Please Rob Me” website says: “….on one end we’re leaving lights on when we’re going on a holiday, and on the other we’re telling everybody on the internet we’re not home… The danger is publicly telling people where you are. This is because it leaves one place you’re definitely not… home.”
Reinforcing this concern are several stories from both the UK and the US of insurers refusing to pay out after a domestic burglary, where victims have announced via social networks that they were away on holiday – or having a beer downtown.
For LBS to go truly mass market – and Forrester (see Slide 27) found that only 5% of mobile users were monthly LBS users – smartphone growth will be a key part of the puzzle. Recent Ofcom data reported that:
- Ownership nearly doubled in the UK between February 2010 and August 2011 (from 24% to 46%).
- 46% of UK internet users also used their phones to go online in October 2011.
For now at least, most of our location based activity would seem to be based on previous online behaviours. So, search continues to dominate.
Google in a recent blog post described local search ads as “so hot right now” (Slide 22, Sept-Oct 2011 update). The search giant launched hyper-local search ads a year ago, along with a “News Near You” feature in May 2011. (See: April-May 2011 update, Slide 27.)
Meanwhile, BIA/Kelsey forecast that local search advertising revenues in the US will increase from $5.1 billion in 2010 to $8.2 billion in 2015. Their figures suggest by 2015, 30% of search will be local.
The other notable growth area, location based mobile advertising, also offers a different slant on the typical “check in” service which Gowalla et al tend to specialise in. Borrell forerecasts this space will increase 66% in the US during 2012 (Slide 22).
The most high profile example of this service in the UK is O2 More, which triggers advertising or deals when a user passes through certain locations – offering a clear financial incentive for sharing your location.
Jiepang, China’s leading Location-Based Social Mobile App, offered a recent example of how to do this. Late last year they partnered with Starbucks, offering users a virtual Starbucks badge if they “checked-in” at a Starbucks store in the Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. When the number of badges issued hit 20,000, all badge holders got a free festive upgrade to a larger cup size. When coupled with the ease of NFC technology deployed to allow users to “check in” then it’s easy to understand the consumer benefit of such a service.
Mine’s a venti gingerbread latte. No cream. Xièxiè.
Tom Glaisyer (TG) and Jessica Clark (JC), from the public policy institute and think tank New America Foundation, were recently in the UK as part of their work for the Open Society Foundation’s Mapping Digital Media initiative. They spent a whirlwind day in the UK meeting representatives from the Department for Culture Media and Sport, NESTA, and the Ofcom English Advisory Committee. I interviewed them for a short piece to go on Ofcom’s Intranet, exploring some of the key media policy issues in the US at present. The text of this interview is below.
What interests you about the UK communications scene at present?
TG: There are two interesting things going on in the UK right now. One is the push for greater broadband and the other is the proposal for local television. We’ve been reflecting on those proposals in the shadow of the US experience, both with low powered television, which is not a big player [in the US], and public access cable which has historically been an important bastion of free speech and community content. We have had some frank and interesting discussions with many people about the lessons that can be taken from the US experience.
What are the main things the UK can learn from the US?
TG: When we look at truly local stations they fall into two categories; one is the local public and commercial stations that are quite formal and professional and then the local community focused stations both in the low powered radio space and cable access realms.
The lesson is that when you get to the local level you replace dollars with community engagement. The success of the best of those community stations are as a result of tight community engagement, real leadership and multi platform approach spanning everything from media literacy programmes online and offline, through theatres, radio, television and internet platforms.
JC: I’ve been particularly interested to hear that there are very similar conversations happening around business models. There’s a lot of frustration and questions on how to generate enough support for local media, whether that’s broadcast, newspaper or online.
There are conversations around innovation and the discussions we had at NESTA were very resonant of several conversations that we have both led and participated in over the last few years. These explored how to identify what the new gaps are, given the surge of the different kinds of media and the new accessibility, and how people can be incentivised and supported in inventing new things when there’s not necessarily a clear business model in place.
Are these big policy issues being discussed widely in the States?
TG: In the community media space, the recent passage of the Local Community Radio Act will open up additional low powered stations in areas that otherwise would not have been able to find spectrum given the prior rules. There’s lots of energy around that.
There is also a set of people thinking about what public access television is in a “YouTube” age and how that plays out given the challenges to the business model and the fees. The income they survive on is a franchise fee from cable operators and those are under pressure.
JC: There’s also a broad ranging discussion around the so called “crisis in journalism” and there’s some real debate about whether journalism is healthy and more exciting than ever, and that the crisis is really an advertising issue.
Or whether the crisis is in newspapers rather than news per se? How are things changing in the US?
TG: People are beginning to embrace that news is now as much about data as it is about narrative. It requires a different but overlapping set of skills from those journalists required in the past. Is journalism solely a formal profession or is it something that audiences can contribute to?
JC: There’s a generalised decoupling of various news functions and there’s a wholesale re-examination of whether those functions naturally belong together or whether they can be repackaged and performed in different ways.
The other thing interesting thing is thinking about relationships between policy and practice. People are trying to learn from experiments globally, and apply those models, even if they are not exactly parallel.
TG: In a moment where policy moves slower than technology, the opportunity is sometimes at the institutional level to hack the content and remake media. This is a glass half full take on what is a very unstable moment.
Those things aside, are there any other big topics that dominate the US policy and regulatory space?
TG: We’ve had the recent merger between NBC and Comcast. That went through with minimal public interest conditions being placed upon it. There’s been the recent push back on the AT&T and T-Mobile merger.
The other perennial debate is around funding of Public Service Broadcasting by the federal government. This has been contentious from the moment the first dollar was spent. In an age of austerity it is under examination at present, and it is likely to be contentious for ever.
JC: There’s also a real fear that draconian copyright measures will threaten the most vibrant and promising social media platforms. There’s a very strong pushback right now on that issue.
We’re having the same debate here, even though our markets are very different and people consume things in a different ways. There was the Hargreaves Review very recently and a sense that unless we update our IP and copyright regime then we may be hindering economic growth.
JC: In the US, we have various fair use laws that we’re hoping people will continue to use to their full extent to keep them being infringed upon by corporate interest.
In addition, there is a tremendous amount of attention being paid around the globe to social media. People are using social media to press back against governments that are keeping their media systems closed and even just for social movements in the US and elsewhere.
TG: It’s important to think about the balance between the rights of consumers and the rights of the creators of content.
Tell me about it, that’s something we try and do every day!
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Ofcom’s Damian Radcliffe produces a regular round-up of developments in hyperlocal publishing. In this guest post he cross-publishes his latest presentation for this summer, as well as the background to the reports.
Ofcom’s 2009 report on Local and Regional Media in the UK identified the increasing role that online hyperlocal media is playing in the local and regional media ecology.
New research in the report identified that
“One in five consumers claimed to use community websites at least monthly, and a third of these said they had increased their use of such websites over the past two years.”
That was two years ago, and since then, this nascent sector has continued to evolve, with the web continuing to offer a space and platform for community expression, engagement and empowerment.
The diversity of these offerings is manifest in the Hyperlocal Voices series found on this website, as well as Talk About Local’s Ten Questions feature, both of which speak to hyperlocal practitioners about their work.
For a wider view of developments in this sector, you may want to look at the bi-monthly series of slides I publish on SlideShare every two months.
Each set of slides typically outlines 20 recent hyperlocal developments; usually 10 from the UK and 10 from the US.
Topics in the current edition include Local TV, hyperlocal coverage of the recent England riots, the rise of location based deals and marketing, as well as the FCC’s report on The Information Needs of Communities.
Feedback and suggestions for future editions – including omissions from current slides – are actively welcomed.
The event was part of a series organised by the BBC Innovation Academy, in association with Bristol Media and Bristol Anchor project. Fellow contributors included:
I was also delighted to discover that the event was being organised – and compered – by Paul Appleby who I know from both BBC and CSV days. It was great to catch up with him and others whilst in the South West.
I’m delighted to report that they have already had over 1,000 views, which is fantastic!
Finally, a word of thanks to Suzanne Kavanagh who provided fantastic live tweeting from the event (as @sashers). This very effectively summed up what people were saying. So, I turned her comments – and those of others into a Tweetdoc: http://bit.ly/hzlNYm which gives a good flavour of what was discussed.