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Hyperlocal and community news sector ‘far more stable’ than previous years but still no ‘silver bullet solution’, report finds

By Charlotte Tobitt and Jessica Brown

Independent hyperlocal and community news publishers have become “part of an emerging local media system that cannot be ignored” despite not yet meeting initial expectations to become a “potential saviour of local journalism”, according to a new report.

The London School of Economics this month published a report titled “Hyperlocal news: after the hype” which said small community-oriented publications began “popping up” five to ten years ago and appeared to provide an antidote to the “doom and gloom” surrounding the local news industry.

However hyperlocals today continue to face major challenges of funding – for which solutions are still being sought – and sustainability, as they are often reliant on a tiny team and therefore vulnerable.

But there is no “silver bullet solution”, report author and Swedish journalist Carina Tenor said.

She wrote: “As commercial mainstream local news faced increasing financial pressures over the last decade, some people hoped that new digital technologies would facilitate the growth of independent ‘hyperlocal’ online news to fill the gaps.

“This sector of small community news providers uses digital tools and platforms to report from places and in forms that commercial media outlets do not.

“After a first phase of enthusiasm they struggled to spread widely but now there are signs that they have become part of an emerging local media system that cannot be ignored.”

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Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism (C4CJ) set up the Independent Community News Network in January, a news centre for new forms of local news providers.

It now has 87 member publishers including the Bristol Cable, Hackney Citizen and Scottish investigative journalism co-operative The Ferret.

The work of C4CJ and the ICNN was mentioned in the LSE report, which said the centre had “close links to both journalism training and media research”.

ICNN director Emma Meese told Press Gazette: “We set up the C4CJ six years ago and we’ve come a really long way since then. So while the sector is still fragile I would say it’s far more stable than it has definitely been in previous years.”

She added: “As ICNN we’ve got this opportunity now to really bring together the publishers that are doing amazing work at a very local level right across the UK and start to speak with a unified voice.”

ICNN is trying to “level the playing field”, according to Meese, who said “a really good start” would be starting to talk in terms of news publishers instead of newspapers to aid access to statutory notices.

Another issue is access to press cards. Guidelines state applicants must earn the majority of their income through journalism to be eligible, often excluding those running community or hyperlocal websites who may need to work another job in order to survive but who are likely to be the first on the scene because they live on patch.

Meese said: “We have been working with the NUJ really closely over the past 18 months to see what we can do because that’s something that’s not fair. It doesn’t make you any less of a journalist.”

She added that when the guidelines were drawn up, “there was no such thing as an owner-publisher. There was no such thing as being able to set up your own website and have your own digital news publication”.

ICNN member Caerphilly Observer is one such publication, set up by editor Richard Gurner because he believes his community “deserves a lot better than what is currently being offered by other publications”.

Caerphilly Observer began online in 2009 and became a print product four years later after interest from potential advertisers.

Gurner agreed that the sector has “definitely grown and developed” and suggested there is currently “an emerging professionalism within independent publishers”.

However Gurner said that even though the Caerphilly Observer is currently sustainable, “other publications are quite fragile” and that he is still looking for ways to grow revenue himself.

But he said: “As the report says, there’s no silver bullet magic formula. What works here in Caerphilly with me might not necessarily work elsewhere in the country.”

C4CJ has just been awarded a €250,000 grant (almost £223,000) from Google’s Digital News Initiative to develop new tools enabling hyperlocal and community news organisations to earn money selling their editorial content on to other publishers.

C4CJ said in a statement: “This is a ground-breaking response to the issues of sustainability in the sector and the new forms of funding it provides will deliver a much-needed boost to small independent publishers across the UK.”

ICNN is also looking at how to get more pots of money to disperse fairly among the industry, and more contestable funding like a £200,000 grant from the National Assembly for Wales in October to fund hyperlocal start-ups. It is also looking at how collective ad selling might work.

Meese said: “Big advertising organisations and big companies are not interested in dealing with a one man band in a little village in a corner of the UK.

“However if you’ve suddenly got 100 or 150 or 200 news publishers collectively in like a co-operative then obviously it becomes a lot more appealing for people who want to get advertising out to all corners of the UK.”

Some hyperlocals, including the Hackney Citizen, have begun asking for donations from supporters to shore up falling ad revenues.

Hackney Citizen editor Keith Magnum told Press Gazette last week that his newspaper was “probably not” a commercial success after ten years and that it is still aiming for survival in a “challenging environment”.

Magnum suggested that public subsidies and not-for-profits will inevitably be the way forward for local news, while Caerphilly Observer editor Gurner criticised the fact “any sort of digital growth is hoovered up by Facebook and Google” – known collectively as the Duopoly.

Gurner is also looking at other services, such as offering digital marketing and search engine optimisation, to companies in order “for us to remain competitors with the big boys”.

He said: “I think it always will be hard, but I suppose it’s how publishers meet that challenge head on.

“If they’re sort of going ‘oh well we might not be here in a year’s time’, the chances are you’re not going to be there in a year’s time.

“Whereas if you have the mind set of those who are like ‘we’re carrying on’, as I do, because what else am I going to do, then that is what’s going to happen. We are going to continue.”

Picture: Caerphilly Observer

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