Where ‘Hyperlocal’ Is a Movement, Not a Business Model

I’ll bet you £10 that “royal wedding” is the first thought that jumps to the mind of an American journalist asked about Britain today. Yet with the ever-present fixation on their profession’s future, perhaps journalists in the U.S. should look past the palaces to the real action happening at the hyperlocal level.

The reality of Britain — surprise, surprise — is that most citizens don’t live in castles. They probably live in a “terraced” house or flat. They drink tea all day, not just in the “high” of the afternoon. And, whether the citizens of Britain know it or not, more and more have active hyperlocal media serving their patch. They don’t, however, have Patch. Yet.

There are many similarities to what’s happening on either side of the pond when it comes to hyperlocal media — both are seeing an active effort to form sites serving highly targeted geographical areas. But the movement in the U.K. is not powered by grants from foundations with a commitment to journalism, as the Knight Foundation has done in the U.S. for sites like TileMill and EveryBlock, which became an acquisition target of MSNBC. Nor is it as much about business models or experiments by major media. Rather, in the U.K., where I, an American, live, the people power these blogs, forums, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds aimed toward local communities. Some are seasoned journalists. Some are advocates for their community. Some are students jockeying for a career in journalism. Some just want to fill an information void. But rarely do any of Britain’s hyperlocalists receive financial aid.

Brits rely more on public services for media, such as the BBC, which hires journalists to produce its vast television, radio and online offerings. (The Beeb is funded through a household television license fee and managed by a trust to keep its independence from government.) However, the BBC doesn’t venture into local — much less hyperlocal — media.

That’s not to say the Brits don’t acknowledge big media’s role in hyperlocal media. Witness the spread of the British FONGs (Future of News Groups) and their interest in hyperlocal. Or the Guardian’s investment and experimentation in local and hyperlocal media. Or the proliferation of Northcliffe Media’s Local People sites. In Scotland, STV (a Scottish television channel) has put efforts against a local online news venture. Big media is clearly playing a role in the U.K.’s hyperlocal movement, just not the lead role.

Meanwhile, action is happening at the grassroots. Talk About Local and its founder, Will Perrin, are front and center in the U.K.’s hyperlocal movement, helping regular people share information, stories and opinions about their communities online, even as it shuns the buzzword in favor of concepts like “community” and “neighborhood.” That’s because regular people don’t have a clue what “hyperlocal” means.

The founders and fans of Talk About Local are not working on business models. Yet the dialogue they help foster is arguably less journalist centric. Is this a bad thing? Possibly.

The U.K. lags in media progress compared to the U.S. in more ways than one, as Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust blogged a few months back. I believe that for hyperlocal to survive here, the Brits need to heed lessons from outside their borders. Perhaps the new U.K. version of The Huffington Post will help AOL bring Brits the Patch formula. Speculation is building.

While the U.K. can look toward the U.S. for lessons in hyperlocal entrepreneurship and business building, Americans can learn as much from Brits in the realm of community building. Hyperlocal media here is not about the journalists’ fight for relevance. It is about making journalism relevant, which is a cog in the wheel of building strong communities, communities that rarely have the castles imagined in fairy tales.

Joni Ayn Alexander is a journalist, blogger, researcher and lecturer. Currently, she is researching the people powering hyperlocal media in the U.K. and U.S. within her PhD at Staffordshire University. Originally from Oklahoma, she now lives in Cardiff, Wales, with her British husband.

  1. April 15, 2011

    Patience indeed, from the early attempts from folks at AT&T to the current attempts from Patch.com it takes time and patience. It also takes a lot of community involvement. Companies need to push the Time/Location barriers and roadblocks to make it truly profitiable and worthwhile for the user.

  2. April 15, 2011

    It’s probably worth adding a link the to OpenlyLocal hyperlocal directory at http://OpenlyLocal.com/hyperlocal_sites
    Lists over 450 hyperlocal sites around the UK

  3. Andrew Brightwell
    April 15, 2011

    Could I also add as evidence of this ‘people power’, the work being done by Podnosh with the social media surgeries? These are essentially an attempt to exchange and build social media skills within communities – so they can tell their own story. (See: http://www.socialmediasurgery.com).

    I think it fits quite well with your observation that, while the US is busy building quite formal (and sometimes business-led) approaches to local online journalism, in the UK there is an attempt to address these things in a far less formal way.

  4. April 15, 2011

    This is a very over-simplified view of what is actually happening in the UK and the US. America has many more grassroots local efforts online than the UK and does not want for community activism. Arguably the three largest and most commercially successful sites in the UK – http://www.soglos.com, http://www.chiswickw4.com and http://www.londonse1.co.uk don’t get a mention. Ignoring the best examples doesn’t do justice to the UK’s hyperlocal industry and ignoring grassroots in the States doesn’t do justice to theirs.

  5. April 15, 2011

    thanks for the mention joni

    At talk about local we help people in isolated or deprived neighbourhoods find a voice online. and indeed help as many others as we can. i do use the ‘hyperlocal’ word on twitter etc but not when dealing with regular folk on the ground. nor do we lead with ‘journalism’ or traditional ‘news’ both are a turn-off on the doorstep with regular citizens.

    we generally show people who have a burning need to communicate how to use free-ish platforms like wordpress.com or ning.com. sometimes folk create sites that are recognisably ‘newsy’ sometimes they do other things to build local social capital. have a look at:

    http://w14london.ning.com/ – 700 people in a ning run by a retired lady in the concrete housing estates of west london
    http://heeleyonline.org/ – local news and info run by a community centre in a deprived inner city
    http://talkaboutwolverton.wordpress.com/home/ – a great local history site

    We do have funding in the background from Channel4 and Screen West Midlands and also earn money from clients who want to help local people fnd a voice of their own online. For instance we were delighted when Broxtowe Council engaged us to work with residents in Bramcote:

    the sites we give people the skills to create are almost free to run and are as sustainable as any other volunteer community project. which in the UK can mean lasting for decades.

    we also sort of convene the british hyperlocal movement, if anyone can be said to do that – look for the #TAL11 for our unconference in Cardiff recently and indeed #TAL10 and #TAL09

    Whilst new ideas are great we mustn’t make the common mistake in tech world of dragging and dropping ideas across the atlantic in either direction. Especially given the difference in the nature of journalism and importantly local advertising markets.

    Talk about local is always happy to work with anyone – we run as a business with public service values and believe strongly in collaboration. We have advised major news groups local and national, broadcasters, government etc Drop me a line william@talkaboutlocal.org

  6. April 16, 2011

    A client of mine recently did some research on the UK Hyperlocal sector for a media buyer. The brief was to try and rank sites in the UK by size. The methodology used was not to rely on claimed visits unless there was some independent corroboration from interaction by users on the site. The most reliable metric was deemed to be membership or newsletter subscription and anything with under 2,000 was assumed to be commercially unviable. Specialist media efforts such as STV and Local People were looked at but the sites of local newspapers were not included.

    There were only 8 sites in the country that were found that could verifiably claim to have a real readership of over 2,000 on this basis and the top two are arguably not hyperlocal. Interestingly the rest were all in London. There is no question of a London bias here as the researcher was based in the north.

    1) Sheffield Forum – 120,000 members
    2) Soglos.com – 16,500 newsletter
    3) ChiswickW4.com (NN) – 14,000 newsletter
    4) LondonSE1 – 7,200 newsletter
    5) eastdulwichforum.com – est. based on posting activity
    6) PutneySW15.com (NN) – 4,200 newsletter
    7) EalingToday.co.uk (NN) – 3,900 newsletter
    8) ActonW3.com (NN) – 2,400 newsletter

    The research wasn’t meant to be comprehensive so there are probably other sites that have been overlooked particularly as none of the above ever seem to get much mention in the noise on Twitter about UK hyperlocal.

    It would be interesting to see a similar list drawn up for the States. You’d expect it to be much longer because of population size. Don’t think you can really start making conclusions about the state of the industry until you start look at hard data like this.

  7. April 16, 2011

    My take on the ‘hyperlocal business model’ is that there is definitely room for independents to make a business out of it. At visithorsham.co.uk we have a subscription-based model for what, at it’s heart, is basically a directory.

    However by combining this with other sites including our Facebook Page which has over 5,500 members, we can promote our businesses’ news and offers to a high proportion of our town’s residents.

    One of the great thing about the ‘independent’ approach is that you can engage your community in your sites’ development giving businesses and consumers a sense of involvement.

  8. Joni Ayn
    April 18, 2011

    Thanks for all the comments, which inevitably were going to add loads more nuance and information than I could squeeze into this post. Erica is completely right in saying I’ve over simplified the comparison between the US and UK. That was always going to be the case; this isn’t my thesis. I had to leave out loads of people, media and research worthy of a mention. What I hope I have done is pointed out the main differences in the dialogue around hyperlocal in both countries.

  9. April 19, 2011

    Kevin, we’d be really interested to get more details about the research you have quoted and if possible see the original report. If possible could you contact info@neighbournet.com.

    One addition to the list should be http://www.harringayonline.com/ which has over 4,000 registered members

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