Associated 'hyperlocal' sites to broaden regional empire

Associated Newspapers' digital division is hoping to expand beyond its current Northcliffe regional newspaper markets by launching a number of "hyperlocal" community news web sites.

"The next big thing is local," Alan Revell, chief operating officer of Associated Northcliffe Digital, told Press Gazette.

"Northcliffe titles cover about 12 per cent of the population. How we go to market in areas where we don't already have newspaper sites presents a new opportunity and a whole new set of challenges."

One model that interests Revell is the American company Backfence, which operates seven websites in suburban Washington and San Francisco that rely on "citizen journalists" to cover their communities at a "hyperlocal" level.

Revell has met Backfence co-founder Mark Potts, who was also one of the founders of WashingtonPost.com.

Revell said: "Backfence isn't just throwing a site open to the community, but creating some structure around it by someone with credentials in quality journalism. They are creating a proposition that is not necessarily controlled by the local newspaper, but is creating opportunities for the local communities to come together."

Citizen journalism initiatives could allow local sites to expand coverage of material such as local football results, community activities and local events.

A small-scale trial is expected to be in place before the end of the year, but no single "big bang" launch is planned.

Instead, new community sites are likely to expand gradually from areas adjacent to Northcliffe papers' existing patches.

"We won't parachute into areas that we don't know anything about," Revell said.

Associated hopes to monetise such sites with local search advertising.

He added that the focus on user-generated community content would also be felt at the existing "This Is" Northcliffe regional newspaper websites.

Existing interactive features, such as forums, would be enhanced, and the company aims to "put more content creation tools in the hands of the user".

"Clearly there's a firm place for traditional journalism created by professional journalists," said Revell. "They will continue to be the mainstay of our local website, but we see significant opportunities for areas of the sites to be of the people and by the people."

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