Talk About Local’s Hartley: U.K. Hyperlocals Looking for Scale

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The U.K. has been a rich testing ground for hyperlocal content plays over the past few years. But British projects have taken a slightly different flavor than we’re used to here in the U.S., says Sarah Hartley, a veteran journalist who has been involved in some notable stabs at conquering the local space — particularly at Guardian News Media. She is currently working on the Guardian’s local bulletin board project n0tice, and is also the managing director of the web site Talk About Local

Street Fight recently to Hartley about the U.K.’s distinctive take on local new, the impact of citizen journalism, and how new online platforms are changing the ways that people consume hyperlocal content.

Citizen journalism has played a big role in the evolution of the U.K.’s hyperlocal news sites. Is that still a major focus?
There is certainly plenty of that sort of thing. How it appears to us [in the U.K.] is that in the U.S. it is more business-minded and more and enterprises are set up with that purpose — to become a news business. Now, it’s certainly the case that there is some of that — and probably there will be an increase of that in the U.K. — but I would say that the vast majority of what we call “hyperlocal” sites here have been set up by somebody who perhaps just wants to make connections in their neighborhood; or wants to pursue a particular issue or campaign; or is trying to reach out to other people in their local area. So it’s probably less about publishing and business and more about community and connections.

 You work for, which is a model where people can post about their interest. Can you talk about that model a little bit?
n0tice is a new-ish platform.  We only launched a couple of weeks ago properly public, and started back just before Christmas in a beta running by invite only. It has been used as a platform for quite a few hyperlocal site operators who are looking for a way to extend their brand of what they do online. It’s different from other things in this area in that we are trying to build something that will help people have a sustainable revenue stream, should they wish, for their activities.

It’s set up so that we call people who have these things “n0tice board owners.” They own their own n0tice board, which has their own URL. They can set it up and personalize it as they wish. And those n0tice board owners get to keep 85 percent of any revenue they bring into their n0tice boards. So, although it will be quite small money, because you can have free advertising and free listings, the priority listings have a small fee. It’s trying to give hyperlocal people who want to run something very local … some tools and the ability to pursue that.

Are there particular hyperlocal business models that are working particularly well in the U.K.?
I think it’s very early days. In fact, there’s a lot of research going on in that area in the moment. You might be interested to look at a program that’s just started that the National Endowment for Science and Technology has just launched which is a pot of money basically for people to bid for to advance those sort of things. To actually undertake research in the area and actually try out different business models.

There’s a few different projects like that coming along at the moment … It’s very much a thing at the moment that people are putting a lot of attention to, but there hasn’t been a magical formula that’s worked so far. The main issue is — and it will be the same as the one in the U.S. — how to have enough scale for advertisers. So, I think people are now starting to think, “Well, is it advertising? Or can you find different revenue streams that aren’t so old-style advertising?”

[Hyperlocal content] will become more disparate, more granular, if you like. I think the content will exist across a lot of different platforms and will be primarily produced and consumed by mobile.

I think we’re starting to see that and we’re starting to see some more experimentation, but nothing that’s become: “That’s the way to do it, that’s how you achieve success in that area.” But for a lot of people, that’s not an interest to them. For a lot of people, it really is something they want to do. It’s a passion project, it’s something that’s important in their community and it’s not something that they are looking to turn into a business.”

How do you think location-based technology is affecting hyperlocal content?
I think that’s definitely coming to the form in things like n0tice, and more in mobile technologies and yes, definitely much more of geo-tagging of content and the ability to surface that geo-tagged content I think will change the way that we produce content. A lot of the larger regional and local publishers haven’t really had much opportunity to pursue those sorts of things yet, so I think we will see some game-changers coming up this year. We keep looking at the U.S. to try and see what’s coming, because you [the U.S.] tend to experiment with these things a lot sooner.

What is Talk About Local all about?
Talk About Local helps people in communities find their voice online. So, in a lot of cases, we work with people that want to set-up hyperlocal sites — get them started, carry out training, help network people together so that they can find shared solutions and get involved in research in this area. It’s support and facilitation of hyperlocal sites.

Where do you think hyperlocal is headed? In terms of a business model, content and/or how they tell a local story?
That’s sort of the million dollar question at the moment and is where all these research bodies are looking. I think it will become more disparate, more granular, if you like. I think the content will exist across a lot of different platforms and will be primarily produced and consumed by mobile. But, in that way, it’s almost harder to see it, if you know what I mean. It will be much more apparent because the content will come easier to you, the content will probably find you a lot more, on whatever platform you choose to be on.

But these sort of destination type websites and blogs that are a bit like newspapers were — I think they’ll be less important in a way. I think we’ll be more likely to bump into the content we consume are we’re going around mobile. I think we can already start to see it. You may find really interesting useful content on Facebook, but it’s not coming out from one destination source that you’re then going to go visit everyday. You just sort of chance across it on Twitter or whatever.

Do you think that will affect the citizen journalism model at all, or do you think it will be easier for citizens to get out hyperlocal content?
I think it’ll be easier for people, but I don’t think that they’ll necessarily decide to identify themselves as “citizen journalists.” It’s become a very problematic sort of title, just because you want to share something somebody in your neighborhood and share some important piece of local news and information, does that really make you a citizen journalist? No, I don’t really think so. It just makes you an engaged person, doesn’t it? Just somebody who has something to say. So, yes, it will make the activity easier, but whether you go on to define yourself by it is another question entirely.

Isa Jones is an intern at Street Fight.