Today's extract from What do we mean by local?* is by Richard Jones, a freelance journalist who lectures at Leeds university.
He spent six years at Sky News before becoming a stay-at-home father and setting up a hyperlocal website, Saddleworth News, in February 2010. His is a salutary lesson to those who believe they can make a hyperlocal website work...
I set up Saddleworth News for two main reasons. The first was pure selfishness. I didn't want to leave journalism for ever, and... I also thought my brain would appreciate something to think about every day that didn't involve nappies...The second reason was more public-spirited. We'd only recently moved to Saddleworth, a collection of largely rural Yorkshire villages on the Manchester side of the Pennines.
With just one or two articles a day in the Oldham paper, and some monthly freesheets and magazines, there was relatively little news coverage of an area which has a distinct identity. I hoped my skills might be of some use to the local community...
It's easy to become a publisher these days. A quick purchase of some web hosting and an evening tinkering with a free WordPress theme, and Saddleworth News was ready to go...
At first, I set aside one hour a day to work on the site during my daughter's afternoon nap, and gave myself a target of one post every weekday...
The site hadn't been going long when a teenager killed himself at a nearby railway station. A passenger on the train involved was posting updates and pictures from the scene on Twitter.
After getting in touch and asking if I could use his content, I was able to quickly publish it in articles about the incident.
With the local paper not getting anything online about the story until the following day, my site was the only resource for information about why the
trains between Huddersfield and Manchester weren't running.
The site's hits increased more than five-fold overnight, mostly thanks to Google searches. It was an early lesson in the value of publishing content that other media outlets can't or won't produce.
Over the following weeks, every time the site had a spike in traffic like that, the hit stats always settled back down at a higher level than before, until several hundred unique users became the daily norm rather than the exception.
If publishing stories faster than other media is one service hyperlocal sites can provide, doing issues in more depth is another...
Covering a major election drama
As polling day in 2010 approached, I knew that both the Westminster constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth, and the local wards being contested on Oldham council, would be closely fought...
Pondering how to approach the campaign, I mentioned to a newspaper reporter that I was thinking of doing full interviews with all the candidates. He said he'd had a similar idea, but had been told by his editor that "there wasn't space in the paper".
This was nonsense. The editor could have found space, if not in the paper then certainly online, had he wanted. He just chose not to, and instead the
paper's readers were only given prepared statements made by each of the candidates...
It was clear to me that I could use my journalism skills to not only keep myself entertained by covering the campaign, but also put the candidates under a bit of scrutiny that they wouldn't face from anyone else...
Along with an article about each candidate, I included a link to the whole interview as an audio file...
Defending the marginal seat of Oldham East and Saddleworth was Phil Woolas, then Labour's immigration minister... He held the seat narrowly after a couple of recounts, but his Lib Dem opponent Elwyn Watkins mounted a rare and extraordinary legal challenge to the result, on the grounds that Woolas had told lies about his character in campaign leaflets.
Over the weeks, I wrote lots more articles about this, reporting on various small developments in the saga. By the time the case ended in a shock triumph for Watkins and defeat for Woolas, Saddleworth News had by far the largest online archive of material about the story...
The depth of my coverage of the Woolas saga helped raise the site's profile, and also taught me another lesson about online journalism. The internet is forever. No longer is a news story tomorrow's fish and chip paper... It can be discovered and read months and even years later...
Coping with a snoozing councillor
Covering news on a very local basis throws up all kinds of dilemmas. Lest I get too big for my hyperlocal boots, a couple of weeks after all the by-election excitement I found myself at a meeting of Saddleworth parish council.
The councillors voted on whether to continue paying for a summer tourist shuttle bus to a local reservoir. Not exactly a huge issue, but worth a few grand of public cash all the same.
With the vote tied at six-all, the councillors noticed that one of their number had dozed off. They all thought it was rather amusing, and prodded him awake.
Having slept through the whole discussion this councillor could have decided the future of the scheme one way or the other, but, unsurprisingly a bit confused about what was going on, decided not to vote.
Walking home, I wondered how I should report this. I was tempted to really stick it to the snoozing councillor. After all, his inability to stay awake during the meeting had a direct impact on whether several thousand pounds of local taxpayers' money was spent or not.
If I'd been writing for the paper that's probably what I would have done, because being part of a local institution like that would have afforded me a bit of protection against any backlash from the councillor's colleagues.
But when you're on your own, your own credibility and reputation is all you've got. Having a pop at an elderly gent, who despite illness was still
attempting to do the unpaid role he had been elected to, would have been rather mean-spirited...
So I mentioned the sleeping councillor, but in a straightforward way near the end of my story, rather than taking a more accusing angle...
Hyperlocal sites face a much bigger problem than fretting about councillors, though. It's the same problem exercising managers, bean counters and journalists at news operations around the country and the world. The problem of money.
I'm a journalist, not a salesman. And I found selling ads on Saddleworth News difficult. I think this was partly down to my own lack of selling skills, and partly because most business owners weren't used to internet advertising.
Despite my site's reach of more than 20,000 unique users per month, in an area of only 24,000 people, I found it hard to persuade the butcher and the baker of the value of taking out an ad. Much easier for them to do what they've always done, and use the glossy magazines or the daily paper.
Confronting the economic reality
Most of the ads I did sell were to people who used the website as readers and had their own small online businesses. But I only ever made £150 a month from ads, a paltry return given I had extended the time I spent writing it to two hours every weekday.
When my daughter turned two and we wanted to start putting her into nursery for at least a couple of days each week, I thought about trying to make Saddleworth News my full-time job.
Had I been 22 I might have given it a go, but when you've got a family and a mortgage, gambling isn't so attractive. And a gamble is exactly what it would have been, one with the odds stacked against.
I would have needed to increase my income from the site at least tenfold to start to make it viable as a career, which would have meant spending all of my time chasing cash rather than chasing stories...
Partly inspired by the perceived success of Saddleworth News, other local people had already established different sites focusing on events listings and Groupon-style daily deals for local shops and restaurants. Not competing with me for content, but certainly competing for advertising money.
That helps explain why it was an easy decision to give it up and get back into more traditional work, including lecturing.
I had various options for the site, but all but one would have had me continuing to do Saddleworth News for little reward. Most involved bolting on some kind of paid-for business directory to the site, while a freesheet offered me a very small sum to republish my stories.
So, I chose the best offer I had, and passed the site to university campus Oldham, part of the Huddersfield university.
A journalism student is now writing Saddleworth News as a final year project... Hyperlocal websites have a future. Of course they do... There's no reason why well-intentioned local residents shouldn't do just that and fill them with details of coffee mornings and church services, much in the same way that people have long been producing parish newsletters.
But I'm sceptical about whether hyperlocal journalism of a professional standard has any more of a future than newspaper journalism.
For all the benefits of hyperlocal reporting which I've described, the cash crisis facing other parts of our trade is there too.
I hoped my experiment with Saddleworth News might provide some answers. It was fun and frustrating, exciting and boring, illuminating and tedious, just like journalism is.
But I'm afraid it didn't get me any closer to a model that will keep reporters in the councils and courtrooms.
On Monday: How the London riots led to Tom O'Brien setting up a not-for-profit ad-free site
*What do we mean by local? is edited by John Mair, Neil Fowler & Ian Reeves and published by Abramis. Available at a special Media Guardian price of £12 from firstname.lastname@example.org
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