What a disappointment hyperlocal blogging has turned out to be.
Five years ago, Birmingham could claim to be at the forefront of a ‘movement’ that seemed to offer a glimmer of hope that there was an answer to the decline of traditional local media.
The democratic deficit left behind as papers and TV retreated from the territory marked ‘holding power to account’ could be filled – it was hoped – by a growing band of independent, socially active and civic-minded citizens who could use their digital skills to create news and information services for their neighbourhoods.
Led by the brilliant Jon Bounds and his ‘Birmingham It’s Not Shit‘ (BiNS) site, a number of energetic, engaging and professional-quality local sites did thrive. Blogs for Digbeth, Acocks Green, Bournville, B29, Castle Bromwich and Lozells sprung up and blossomed. Created in Birmingham served the – err – creative and arts communty and LiveBrum provided a brilliant events listing service for the city.
Channel Four helped fund a national body for hyperlocals and it located itself in Birmingham, the Birmingham Mail started sharing content and links with some local sites and the Guardian dabbled with its own branded hyperlocals in Leeds and Cardiff (but not in Brum).
And then? Well, not a lot, really.
Many of the early sites have withered on the vine (follow some of the links in this compendium to see what I mean), the Guardian pulled the plug last year, and the notable exceptions are just that – exceptions. Dedicated volunteers keep things going in Lichfield and Stoke, and our own Dave Harte keeps the flame alive in Bournville.
But most of the true hyperlocal, neighbourhood, blogs seem to run out of steam – and I know having created the Harborne Mile blog in a fit of enthusiasm, and failing to follow through because I had to go and earn a living. Those blogs that work tend to concentrate on specific niches or special interests – but even then their owners seem strangely uninterested in ensuring the blog’s continued viability by embracing a commercial approach.
So a viable and sustainable model has yet to emerge which we can point to as the answer to that ‘democratic deficit’, but I wouldn’t write-off the movement just yet. As the retreat from community-level coverage by the traditional media continues, the opportunity for hyperlocals will surely get larger. Also, the ever-decreasing cost of production of even audio and video content must surely increase the potential for the right approaches to make money and professionalise their services.
But the real prize is a more ruthlessly commercial approach that embraces the potential of aligning hyperlocal content with hyperlocal advertising. Paradoxically, this will require hyperlocal sites to come together in a single body to aggregate their audience figures to a level where they’re a compelling option for major, multisite national advertisers such as Tesco.
I also believe that the public sector can and should play a part. Not by publishing hyperlocals itself, or doling out grants to worthy sites, but by targeting a portion its considerable marketing spend through specifically hyperlocal channels.
I’m probably being unfairly critical of all those who give up many hours of their time each week to deliver a vital community service, but surely a true commercial strategy is the only option to ensure hyperlocal sites have futures beyond the transient interests of their hobbyist founders?
Nevertheless, many of you have contacted me to nominate a phalanx of hyperlocal bloggers for the Midlands Media Power 20, so here they are, with links to their various sites: