Thursday 8 September 2011

Academics argue top down hyperlocals are flawed

Two City University academics Neil Thurman and Professor Paul Bradshaw have said their research shows that an attempt by a major regional publisher, Northcliffe Media, to offer hyperlocal news content is flawed.

Speaking at the ‘Future of Journalism Conference’ in Cardiff they questioned the Government’s commercial, TV-focussed local media strategy, saying that it fails to take into account the qualities of successful independent hyperlocal media outlets.

Thurman and Bradshaw, with co-author Jean-Christophe Pascal, looked at the Local People hyperlocal publishing initiative by Northcliffe, part of the Daily Mail & General Trust.

They claim that Local People has some major flaws and the sites are well behind independent equivalents in terms of engagement with users.

In particular:

  • The four ‘Local People’ sites they studied fell a long way short of meeting Northcliffe’s target of getting 75% of the local online population using their sites. An average of just 8% registered on the site
  • Although Northcliffe intended the network to be ‘for local people, by local people’ about three-quarters of the stories were actually written by the community publisher employed on each site.
  • Comments on stories and follow-ups to discussion posts were also infrequent, with a large majority not generating a single comment or reply.
  • Only a small number of stories or discussions concerned local politics, for example just 7% on ‘Dorchester People’. In contrast ‘Entertainment’ and ‘Sport’ accounted for 53% of all stories.
  • Practical information on topics such as ‘Amenities’, ‘Social Services’, and ‘Security and Safety’ were popular but not well-catered for by the sites’ structure.
  • The sites had failed in their initial aim to be “local version of Facebook”. The researchers found the average registered user had less than one ‘Friend’, with over 90% of registered users having no ‘Friends’ at all.
The research paper concludes: "Specifically, the commercial focus of the ‘Local People’ initiative structurally restricts the editorial control of the community publisher (in fact, the community publisher is not allowed to moderate or edit content by others, or access the back end of the sites).

"This explicit commercialisation of content formalises the cliché that journalism is intended to fill the “space between advertising”, and while some may argue that this commercialisation is needed to ensure a sustainable model for hyperlocal publishing, lower advertising prices online and an increasing demand from advertisers for metrics of engagement suggest this particular commercial model is unproven.

"The closure of the Guardian’s Local project in 2011 only adds to the doubt surrounding advertising as the sole basis for traditional publishers entering the hyperlocal space.

"Doubt also surrounds the sustainability of independent hyperlocal initiatives, however, many of which rely on individuals whose departure or illness would mean an end or pause to their publishing operation.

"Notably though, the investment of effort in creating networks of blogs in an area appears to help provide some insurance against such an event: while blogs frequently close, many inspire others to publish and some are passed on to new owners. The existence of the network itself, meanwhile, appears to act as an incentive for many bloggers to continue their work."

The authors agree with the Government that newly empowered town halls and citizens will need to be held “to account” by a “thriving and sustainable” local media sector.

They disagree, however, that a TV-focussed, commercial strategy is the way forward.

Thurman said: “Successful hyperlocal media is often issue-focused, dynamic, personal, informal and low-tech. These are qualities the web does far better than TV. What’s more, we found that the established commercial local media provider we studied wasn’t enabling community participation or meeting audience interests as well as many independent hyperlocal bloggers have done.”

Professor Bradshaw added: “Lower advertising prices online and an increasing demand from advertisers for metrics of engagement mean that the commercial model for hyperlocal news is unproven. A successful commercial model is as likely to come from the independent sector as from traditional publishers or broadcasters”.

Their full report: “Can Big Media do ‘Big Society’? A critical case study of commercial, convergent hyperlocal news” is available on the City University London website at:

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