What’s the hype about hyperlocal? (Guest post for Wales Home)

Late last night I finished a short article for the WalesHome website about hyper-local, with a particular focus on activity in Wales. The article is now live, but I’ll also post the full text below too. I’m grateful to Hannah Waldram for her advice and input, which resulted in a much better piece than if I’d been left to my own devices.

YOU’VE probably heard about “hyper-local” media, without necessarily knowing what it means. Defining what we mean by hyper-local isn’t easy, but typically we’re talking about content being produced for smaller geographic communities than those served by older – more traditional media. These are usually online, but you could also include community radio stations such as Wrexham’s Calon FM or Llandudno’s Tudno FM in that mix.

There is no such thing as a typical hyper-local site; their voice, audience and purpose is often unique. As a result, their content can vary greatly, with sites offering everything from a focus on ultra-local news, through to being a platform for campaigning or simply acting as an online hub for a community. Whatever their raison d’être, they all have a sense of place at their hyper-local core.

Ofcom’s 2009 report on Local and Regional Media in the UK noted the increasing profile and importance of hyper-local online websites. One in five consumers claimed to use community websites at least monthly, with a third stating they have increased their use of such websites over the past two years.

As broadband (now at 64% of Welsh homes) and 3G mobile take up continues to increase (32% of mobile subscriptions in the UK at the end of 2009), the potential audience for these hyper-local outlets grows. Further developments such as super-fast broadband and YouView (Freeview connected to the web,) may also help to drive consumption in the future.

Understanding the size of this loosely affiliated sector is difficult, as nobody knows quite how many services and sites there are. Openly Local offers a handy directory, and the Guardian’s public RSS feed of hyper-local sites is also very valuable, but despite their best efforts it’s no doubt impossible to capture everything.

Some of the best Welsh produced content (not all of it, it must be said can be classified as hyper-local,) was highlighted last year in the Wales Blog Awards 2010. From the overall winner, The 7 Journey, through to Welsh Language Blogs like Blog Menai and Pugnacious little trolls,  along with community sites like MyWhitchurch and lifestyle blogs with snappy names like The Chic of It, these awards demonstrated the vibrancy of blogging – including hyper-local activity – being produced in Wales.  (You can see the full list of winners here.)

While many hyper-local websites are written by volunteers in their spare time, this isn’t just the terrain of the citizen journalist. The Guardian’s Local project aims to bring “a small-scale community approach to local newsgathering” across three UK cities, including Cardiff. Freelance journalist and Guardian Cardiff beat blogger Hannah Waldram has a long track record in this arena, having previously founded the hyper-local site Bournville Village as well as having blogged for Media Wales and the Birmingham Post.

In Monmouthshire professional filmmakers Richard Waterstone  and Carles Riba launched MONTV in 2008 offering “Local Television for Monmouthshire”. Their website, which features a weekly 15 minute news bulletin as well as a range of other content such as local Sport, Music, Festivals and human interest stories typical gets 1,000 users a day. By December 2009 it had recorded its millionth visitor.

These impressive audience numbers demonstrate that, like the A-Team, if you can find them, hyper-local outlets can be valuable, useful and sometimes very innovative source for their respective communities. But, for their potential to be fully realised, a number of key considerations arguably need to be addressed.

Our research shows discoverability is a key issue for audiences; many people just don’t simply know about the great content being produced by hyper-local outlets. Or, they assume because it’s often produced as a hobby, that this means the quality isn’t very good. Clearly quality varies, but a quick click through to some of the sites in this article should quickly dispel that view.

For practitioners, issues such as time and funding frequently abound, and there are no easy solutions to that. But one area where a difference could be made is creating an informal forum for hyper-local producers to come together, so they can meet and exchange ideas and experiences.

Given that many hyper-local practitioners work on their own, finding a way of working better together – both online and off – could be invaluable. Let’s hope someone is able to grasp this nettle soon; supporting the nascent hyper-local community in this way may well help take this sector to the next level.

Damian Radcliffe is the Nations and Communities Manager at Ofcom.

He is writing in a personal capacity.

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