TAL13: Hyperlocal sustainability debate is highlight

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The financial sustainability of hyperlocal blogs and independent community media provided a lively discussion at the weekend’s Talk About Local ‘Unconference’.

For those of you who don’t know, Talk About Local is an inspirational national organisation which helps local people find a powerful online voice for their community through blogging. They run their annual ‘unconference’ each year – I’ve attended all five and always find them inspiring and energising and Saturday’s event in Middlesbrough was no different.

As I type this, one Leeds hyperlocal site South Leeds Life has just advertised for volunteers in marketing and promotion plus a paid commercial position. It already employs a part-time editor and is edging towards a goal of being sustainable (or at least not for loss).

So Saturday’s TAL debate on funding – one of many on a variety of hyperlocal subjects throughout the day – seems particularly pertinent and timely.

As Simon, who co-runs Isle Of Wight news site On the Wight with his wife Sally said, it’s ‘rude and wrong’ to expect people who run sites and put so many hours of their spare time into them not to have some financial recompense.

So how are hyperlocals making money? The slightly comforting answer is that some ARE succeeding:

  • Some employ salespeople on a 20% commission-only basis, eg Filtern Voice.
  • Run side projects and gain funding to run them ie oral history projects including one run by On The Wight.
  • Some run focused niche publications they know they can get funding for, including what’s on guides.
  • Training: Community reporters training for local residents. Fun ding available from grant bodies like Community First.
  • Voluntary contribution schemes like this from South Leeds Life.

Sites held up as successes included the co-operative Port Talbot Magnet (which has advertising, a print version, run  training courses and pioneered crowdfunding to employ a court reporter via Pitch In and the Media Standards Trust) More on the Magnet here. Could co-op-run media become more prevalant? I’m following West Yorkshire-based Energy Royd with interest.

Other sites that made money included: Caerphilly Observer – the owner apparently ‘really knows his metrics’, which is important; the  Jesmond Local; HU17.net; and Ray Duff’s Hedon Blog.

Print, it seems, is proving a key component of having a multiplatform community media operation. True, sales of mainstream media newspaper are declining but there does seem to be a market for hyperlocal – witness the success of Brixton Blog, One and Other in York and The City Talking in Leeds.

The latter has just produced a 40-page paper and has a busy website – the interesting thing is it started as a 53,000 Facebook group. The paper pays for itself and a little bit more  and they’re actively scouting for investors to take the operation to the next level and employ dedicated staff.

Crucially with print you have a medium that most advertisers (particularly small independent ones) immediately understand and hyperlocal sites often do print better than mainstream (which tend to be less focused). Hyperlocal papers also tend to be free, with lots of community participation/contributions and – beyond the financial – the paper means you can reach an audience that doesn’t engage with you online and drive traffic.

Although it’s also worth noting that Blog Preston and Trinity Mirror’s Ed Walker worries that we obsess too much about money. In his TAL roundup post, he says:

“There has been an acceleration towards hyperlocal sites moving into print (Brixton Blog etc) but whether this is sustainable in the long-term remains to be seen. Will we see more online only brands start printing to try and make their business model pay?”

On the way home from TAL I stumbled on the @peckhampeculiar journalism Kickstarter crowdfunding project, which aims to launch a free independent community newspaper. It aimed to raise £5,000 towards printing/start up costs and as I type has just exceeded that target on its final day on Kickstarter. One to be watched there (as, indeed, is the use of Kickstarter, which has been used successfully in the US for journalism startups, but not so much as over here).

There’s clearly a lot of work to be done for hyperlocals and independent publishers to reach that holy grail of financial sustainability. Some will achieve it, others won’t.

What’s inspiring for me is that there are people making a fist of it, determined to fill the editorial gap let behind as mainstream media cuts back and withdraws from communities – and who quite rightly feel that it’s only right that so much effort be rewarded.

[View the story “#TAL13” on Storify]

UPDATED 1.40pm: I’ve found these rather useful notes on sustainability and capitalising on crowds h/t Claire White.

There’s also a useful toolbox for online startups courtesy of the UClan Made project for entrepreneurs which I attended last year.

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