5 Tips for the Aspiring Hyperlocal Publisher

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hands typingI have been writing about hyperlocal media and entrepreneurial journalism at a local level since early 2009. What a difference half a decade makes. Although the business — and consumption — of journalism continues to evolve, its health certainly seems much more robust than it was back then.

This is particularly true at a hyperlocal level. Consumer and advertiser trends such as SOLOMO (Social-Location-Mobile) have helped hyperlocal to begin to realize its potential. Meanwhile, an increased appreciation from policy makers, regulators and businesses has meant the profile of the sector has arguably never been higher.

Yet at the same time some constants remain. In particular, issues around funding — and sustainability — continue to remain one of the sector’s biggest challenges.

Following last week’s Street Fight Summit here are five important considerations for anyone considering moving into this space (or indeed already in it).

There is no “one size fits all” solution
Back in 2012 I argued, in a landscape report written for the UK Innovation Agency NESTA – that:

“There is really no such thing as a typical hyperlocal service. So often it is defined by the voice, audience and the purpose of the community being served, with all the variety that implies.”

This sentiment remains just as true today.

It is not just business models which vary. Sites also have different production models, geographic footprints, platform and content specialisms. The breadth of these variables makes it challenging to create a cookie cutter template for new hyperlocals. Whilst you can – and should – learn from others in this field, ultimately you’ll have to go your own way.

Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket
Most successful publishers have recognized that multiple income streams are often essential for their survival.

During these uncertain times, being able to spread your risks has consistently paid dividends. Knowing that if one revenue stream declines there’s another to potentially help pick up the slack (or at least deaden the fall) is as comforting as it is pragmatic. And of course it is much easier to grow an existing revenue stream than to start from scratch too; so don’t wait until your primary income source is in freefall before thinking about diversifying.

Alongside digital advertising, examples of different income sources I’ve seen operators develop in recent years include: Events and eBooks, printed What’s On Guides and other reverse publishing models (offering printed products such as newspapers, despite being a digital first operation).

Some entrepreneurs have also successfully developed spin-off consultancy services built around the skills they use every day on their site. You may take your social media, copywriting or tech skills for granted, but someone else may potentially pay you top dollar for them.

Sustainability isn’t just about money
This is an area which is consistently overlooked.

Sustaining the momentum isn’t just about growing your revenues. It’s also about recognizing that inevitably your interest — and energy levels — will wane at some point. Stuff happens. Priorities change. You never know what Rumsfeld-esque “known unknowns” may throw you off kilter.

As a result, I would always advise every publisher to ensure that they have an exit strategy. Although some great sites have continued when their founders have moved on; or their personal circumstances changed, I’ve also seen plenty of great sites being mothballed or closed too.

After all of the effort you’ve put in do you really want to see your site hit the wall? You may be fine with that, but if you’re not, it’s best to start thinking about that Plan B sooner, rather than later.

Involve your community
For many small scale operators, business development and sales often fall by the wayside. The reasons for this are multiple, but typically contain a combination of lack of time, skills or interest. Not everyone is as happy coding a website, selling banner ads or developing a daily deals portfolio, as they are writing copy or digging out a great story.

This is where your audience can be both your champion and your friend.

Developing links with your audience doesn’t just help with story gathering and your monthly uniques. It also helps with succession planning and growing your business. Your community is full of people with different skills and interests. Reach out to them. Engage them. You may be surprised by the results.

At the very least, you can help to ensure that your work does not need to grind to a halt because you go on holiday, or you’re sick. Sadly, all too often, at a hyperlocal level it often does.

Know your limits
Another often overlooked area, this notion is typically considered in the technical or sales arenas, yet it can also apply to potential tensions between your editorial voice and financial realities too.

Many local publishers successfully secure funding — in the form of grants or advertising — from public bodies and local foundations. Often it’s a logical fit. They have messages they want to take to your audience; or these bodies are happy to support grassroots community based initiatives like yours.

From a cashflow perspective, this can be great, but what does this mean for your editorial integrity?

Certainly some hyperlocal news based sites feel uncomfortable with this — feeling that it makes it difficult for them to potentially criticize someone with whom they have a direct financial relationship. As a result, there are publishers who outright refuse to accept funding (be that in the form of grants or advertising) from any such entities.

Not everyone holds this view, but it’s worth considering where you stand on this issue. Moreover, as native advertising becomes increasingly mainstream, these types of ethical conundrums are going to come your way at some point soon. If they haven’t already.

Damian Radcliffe is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies; the UK’s oldest J-School. He is the author of “Here and Now”, the first UK review of the hyperlocal media scene; and numerous other outputs related to local media, journalism innovation and digital communities. You can see links to Damian’s hyperlocal research on his personal website. Follow him on Twitter @damianradcliffe.