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

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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.