Why things are going well for hyperlocal media in the UK http://t.co/CJhlubK0Ha
— BBC Journalism (@BBCCollege) September 16, 2013
Supported by new funding and training initiatives, interest from academics and policy-makers, as well as the increased take up of internet-enabled mobile devices, hyperlocal media have enjoyed a step-change in activity and interest in the past 18 months.
Although earlier fears about the death of local journalism have proved unfounded, evidence provided to the Leveson Committee concluded that 40% of regional press jobs have gone in the past five years – compared to 10% at national level – and that £1bn of annual classified advertising has gone from the regional press since 2008. Separately, research in 2012 by the Press Gazette found that 242 publications had closed between 2005 and the end of 2011. In the same period there were just 70 launches.
It is against this backdrop of geographic and content gaps that some hyperlocal publishers have emerged. The Port Talbot Magnet in Wales is one such example. A couple of years ago Ken Smith, one of the team of journalists behind the site, spoke of their ambitions, noting: “We want to do quality journalism, not regurgitated press releases.” This year the team launched a regular print edition, ensuring the town had a local newspaper for the first time in four years.
Efforts like this provide value to communities, but the web is not always able to fill gaps at the rate they are being created. As the American tech writer Steven Johnson has noted: “There should have been a 10-year evolutionary process: the ecosystem steadily diversifying and establishing its complex relationships; the new business models evolving; the papers slowly transferring from print to digital, along with the advertisers. Instead, the financial meltdown – and some related over-leveraging by the newspaper companies themselves – has taken what should have been a decade-long process and crammed it down into a year or two.”
Nonetheless, hyperlocal media is a small but growing part of the UK’s local media landscape. The number of known sites rose from 432 in May 2012 (as reported in the Ofcom CMR 2012) to 633 by February 2013, and consumption levels are growing too. As the British media monitoring company Kantar has observed: “Just over one half of hyperlocal media users use hyperlocal media more than they did two years ago.”
How levels of hyperlocal use have changed over a period of two years (Kantar)
The growth of this sector can be attributed in part to a number of technological and economic factors. This includes the availability of new (and often free) production tools and platforms, changes in media behaviours driven by smartphone and tablet consumption, as well opportunities for entrepreneurs and digital publishers to fill the gaps traditional media have left behind.
Commenting on similar changes in the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) observedthat: “Professional media have been joined by a wide range of local blogs, email lists, websites and the proliferation of local groups on national websites like Facebook or Yahoo”
In the UK new entrants like the team in Port Talbot have joined more established players such as the Sheffield Forum (established 2002) or the London SE1 community website which is now 15 years old.
This nascent industry has also benefited from a flurry of ‘top down’ activity in the past 18 months, including funding for projects from Nesta, the Technology Strategy Board and The Carnegie Trust, as well as research efforts by Ofcom, Cardiff University and others, designed to better understand the sector.
Meanwhile at a policy level, following consultations with practitioners, DCMS revised proposals for the post-Leveson regulatory regime “to make sure ‘micro-business’ blogs are outside of the scheme” and the Department for Communities and Local Government has sought to promote (with mixed success) the right for members of the press and public – including local bloggers and hyperlocal journalists – to report, film and tweet from various council meetings.
Research suggests that much hyperlocal activity is focused on conurbations such as London and Birmingham. But Ofcom has also noted: “Some rural areas were well served, with South Gloucestershire having 11 sites, largely aimed at small towns and villages, and Wiltshire having 10.” Alongside this, areas such as the North East of England, the East Midlands and the devolved nations appear to be disproportionately underserved by hyperlocal.
It is likely however that these figures underestimate the size of the UK hyperlocal sector. Because anyone can launch a hyperlocal website, there is no licensing structure, which makes it difficult to ascertain the size of the industry. The figures quoted by Ofcom therefore represent a ‘best guess’ derived from sites listed on the Openly Local Hyperlocal Directory. Sites on the directory are typically self-registered, which inevitably means some will be missed. Similarly, the directory does not include social network-based content like What’s on Offerton or Remember Old Cardiff.
That said, in the absence of a more effective solution the Openly Local Hyperlocal Directory remains a great starting point for those interested in understanding the size and geographic scope of UK hyperlocal media. It will be interesting to see if policy makers, researchers or hyperlocal publishers themselves can come up with a better way of monitoring the size of the industry, so that the full scale of its impact on the local media landscape can be better understood.
This post was adapted by the author from his chapter in What Do We Mean by Local?, edited by John Mair with Richard Lance Keeble and Neil Fowler, and published by Abramis on 1 September.