Leeds hyperlocal scene: December 2012 update

“What a disappointment hyperlocal blogging has turned out to be.”

That was the opening paragraph of a post a couple of months ago which caught my attention. Written by Marc Reeves (a former editor of the Birmingham Post), the article was on Rethinking Regional Media’s website and it asked why Birmingham’s hyperlocal bloggers had failed to deliver.

It said:

“Five years ago, Birmingham could claim to be at the forefront of a ‘movement’ that seemed to offer a glimmer of hope that there was an answer to the decline of traditional local media.”

It adds:

“Led by the brilliant Jon Bounds and his ‘Birmingham It’s Not Shit‘ (BiNS) site, a number of energetic, engaging and professional-quality local sites did thrive. Blogs for Digbeth, Acocks Green, Bournville, B29, Castle Bromwich and Lozells sprung up and blossomed. Created in Birmingham served the – err – creative and arts communty and LiveBrum provided a brilliant events listing service for the city.

“Channel Four helped fund a national body for hyperlocals [Talk About Local] and it located itself in Birmingham, the Birmingham Mail started sharing content and links with some local sites and the Guardian dabbled with its own branded hyperlocals in Leeds and Cardiff (but not in Brum). And then? Well, not a lot, really.”

The article, while acknowledging the continuing retreat from community-level coverage by traditional media, does argue that the opportunity for hyperlocals will surely get larger and doesn’t ‘write off the movement just yet’… But it says many of Birmingham’s blogs have ‘withered on the vine’ and ‘a viable and sustainable model has yet to emerge which we can point to as the answer to that ‘democratic deficit’.’

The article adds:

“I’m probably being unfairly critical of all those who give up many hours of their time each week to deliver a vital community service, but surely a true commercial strategy is the only option to ensure hyperlocal sites have futures beyond the transient interests of their hobbyist founders?”

The article’s brought about more than 60 comments. One of my favourites is by Philip John, of Lichfield Live, who says:

“[On viability of hyperlocals] what it’s important to remember is that they are quite often hobbies. When you start a hobby you don’t generally think about having to turn it into a home business just to make it sustainable. Instead, if work or other pressures stop you from pursuing that hobby, you just stop – and that’s precisely what’s happened with many hyperlocals.

“Success or failure for a hyperlocal depends entirely on the initial aim. If the aim was to replace the traditional media then, yes, Birmingham’s bloggers have failed to deliver. However, I think most would agree when I say that was never the aim. Most hyperlocals, I think, would agree that they complement (or scrutinise) the local media in many cases. Yes, if they stop then the community may well lose out, but not to the extent that they will if they lost the local paper.”

Looking at the article and many of the comments, you could substitute Leeds for Birmingham.

It’s useful to define exactly what we mean by ‘hyperlocal’. The word’s beocme massively overused. People referred to the Guardian Leeds and now Leeds Online as ‘hyperlocals’ – they weren’t/aren’t. For me, a city’ like Leeds is far too big a geographical area.

I laughed out loud when somebody referred to the “Yorkshire Evening Post’s hyperlocal coverage” – hyperlocal shouldn’t become a catchword  to encopass everything that’s remotely local.

Damian Radcliffe’s comprehensive Here and Now UK hyperlocal media report from earlier this year has a definition I’ll apply hereon:

“There is no standard definition of hyperlocal media. In the introduction to this review we loosely defined hyperlocal media as:

“Online news or content services pertaining to a town, village, single postcode or other small, geographically defined community”.”

Let’s look at in the context of The Culture Vulture, which everyone rightly holds up as being influential and inspirational as a collaboratve multi-author blog which serves its community of interest very well. What Emma, Phil and team do so well is encourage their readers to contribute on a subject they’re passionate and knowledgeable about.

I know Emma would always resist any temptation to put adverts on the Culture Vulture. Most bloggers would. They don’t see hyperlocal as an industry, they see themselves as serving their community, their friends, like-minded people, their street or town.

Other blogs such as Hyde Park and Woodhouse Online demonstrate this. Updated sporadically, it can sit without updates for months until a major issue comes along. Most recently, a spate of posts on the new Leeds trolleybus route has reignited the dormant  blog – and has led to a number of comments, suggesting its readership doesn’t want or require regular ‘news site’ updates but will happily engage whenever irregular posts are put up.

Hyde Park is a hotbed of community activism, I’m sure the last thing on their mind is monetisation – it serves an important social service. That’s soemthing mainstream media seems to have forgotten.

Hyperlocal blogs can lay dormant for some time and suddenly spring back to life as if it had never been away. Witness Woodhouse Moor Online as the perfect example.

Holt Park Today, run by Luke and Joel Beaumont, is another which is updated maybe only a few times a month, but retains a loyal number of followers both on the blog and via social media, particularly Facebook. Kirkstall Online’s a web offshoot of a popular long-running community print magazine – offers a place to debate and discussm but it’s news coverage isn’t overly comprehensive.

Does irregular updating of any of these blogs  make it any less valuable to their communities? It would appear not. They’re still valued sources covering important local information. Whether they’re commerically sustainable isn’t relevant to the site owners – they’re not journalists and they’re not as directors – success is judged very differently.

Motivation for running a hyperlocal isn’t profit driven as it is with mainstream regional media. Hyperlcoals are run by people who care about their community and want to get information and debate out their – it’s a democratic and community-based decision, not a commercial or journalistic one.

Look at what’s happened in Pudsey since Johnston Press closed down the Pudsey Times free paper earlier this year. We’ve got Pudsey Life, which seems to be doing very well under the stewardship of My Life in Leeds’ Darren Cronian and This Is Pudsey springing up. In print a community-spirited  local undertaker has launched the Pudsey Squeaker magazine. Not particularly for profit, but because Pudsey’s a proud community and needs forum(s) to discuss local issues and pass on information to residents. Nature abhors a vacuum.

My Pudsey on Twitter and Bramleydom on Facebook perform similar functions.

Some hyperlocal blogs in Leeds publish very regularly. Adel Crag Community Association’s blog is one of the most prolific in the city. It’s incredibly comprehensive for such a small community and really does have its fingeres on the pulse.

South Leeds Life is updated three or four times a day, sometimes more often. What’s interesting about SLL is its make-up – it’s a fully constituted community group which has already been awarded a grant to run community reporters’ courses and also has its own print magazine.

It’s multi-author and has no overall editor. As a community group it meets monthly to discuss what it’s going to cover – it’s similar to the Guardian’s open journalism ethos in a much more local kind of way. And it’s hitting a fair few people as well – in print up to 4,000 copies are distributed quarterly, and last month it has over 6,000 unique visitors generating over 19,000 page views – and the audience is growing.

Again, there’s no indication any of these blogs suddenly want to become financially self sufficient (although SLL may be linking up with Addiply shortly to get small ‘postcard’ style ads on it) or become the YEP for their communityies

The closest we’ve got to truly monetised blogs in Leeds is local resident Jo Densley’s popular About My Area LS7 blog, which covers Chapel Allerton. About My Area is a national franchise and Jo has her finger on the pulse both editorially and commercially.

A lot of the Leeds has some form of hyperlocal coverage, either in terms of blogs or on Twitter or Facebook. The list is impressive: Adel Cragg, Bramley, Pudsey, Kirkstall, Headingley, Hyde Park, Woodhouse, Chapel Allerton, Chapeltown, Pool-in-Wharfedale, Otley, Holt Park, Farnley and Wortley, South Leeds, North Leeds and Richmond Hill/LS9.

The fact that many of these have no pretensions to be financially sustainable is irrelevant. These are local people serving their communities, usually in their spare time. That’s not a failure.

It’s true, the number of local bloggers in Leeds hasn’t grown as quickly as one might have anticipated after Talk About Local and hyperlcoal exploded on the scene four or five years ago.

But as Jon Kinmsbury from Nesta says in the Herew And Now report:

“NESTA believes that a diverse and sustainable hyperlocal media can build both public and economic value. Together with our partners, NESTA is seeking to help support this nascent sector and to better understand its potential.

“This review is the start of meeting this ambition. It maps the current landscape of hyperlocal activity in the UK, bringing in international examples where relevant.

“The stakes are high. Successful hyperlocal services could deliver a plurality of relevant news, information, entertainment and authentic local voices. They offer the opportunity of bringing our communities together for good purpose. They might hold public authority to account or express democracy in innovative ways. Some of these services are already present across the UK in very local areas.

“But the very specific and fragmented nature of hyperlocal media often means that activity happens under the radar of traditional media analysis.”

I’m reminded of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s Cudlipp lecture a few years ago, where Rusbrudger talks about Will Perrin, the founder of Talk About Local:

“…I was at a government seminar on the future of local newspapers when one of the participants suddenly interjected: “I don’t believe in journalism.”

“This was a very direct challenge to my general worldview, not to mention my job, so I sought out the person who had made it – a very interesting man called William Perrin – a former Cabinet Office civil servant who threw it all in to run a hyperlocal website reporting on the area of London where the Guardian now lives – King’s Cross.

“Perrin absolutely believes in the moral power and importance of what many of us might think of as journalism. But he isn’t a journalist, he doesn’t call it journalism and he is completely uninterested in the monetary value of what he does. He finds other ways to pay his mortgage.

“Depending on your point of view, you may find that vision of new ways of connecting and informing communities inspiring or terrifying. I think it is both – but it is a useful starting point to thinking about the value of journalism, in every sense of the word ‘value’. And it is good to be forced to think at an even more basic level – about what journalism is and who can do it.”

Watch this space.

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2 comments

  1. johnpopham · · Reply

    I find it really frustrating that people try to judge hyperlocals by irrelevant criteria. Yes, there are some sites which set out to become the equivalent of local online newspapers and that want to commercialise this process, and good luck to them. That’s a very tough task, but I am sure some will make it.

    Most local sites are community services, some as hobbies by people who may or may not have a journalism background, but many as part of wider community strategies. One of the key objectives of many hyperlocal sites is to tell positive stories about communities which get a raw deal from the mainstream media. This is not always a popular approach, and may be unlikely to attract advertising or commercial sponsors.

    So I say, let’s celebrate the glorious range of hyperlocal sites that have blossomed and stop trying to shoehorn them all into a commercial model that is unlikely to suit most.

    1. Some good points there, John. I suspect the people who are trying to belittle hyperlocal sites are usually the people who work for mainstream media operations.

      One of the blogs I regularly contribute for – http://www.southleedslife.com – regularly finds its posts barely rejigged and up on mainstream news operations within a day or so. No credit or attribution given. Sometimes a blatant breach of copyright. Ironic, really, given the ‘ivory towers’ dismissiveness in which these blogs are often handed by local press.

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