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Why have Birmingham’s hyperlocal bloggers failed to deliver?

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:

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Chris Unitt

October 16, 2012 2:29 pm Reply

Expecting a “ruthlessly commercial approach” from “independent, socially active and civic-minded citizens” strikes me as being a little like expecting a tabby cat to bring down a gazelle.

    Marc Reeves

    October 16, 2012 2:51 pm Reply

    Why? Someone setting up a shop or any other kind of small business would rightly be expected to have some commercial nous. Why is it different for bloggers? Many quite rightly claim to be fulfilling a civic need, but when that is fuelled by volunteerism alone there will always be a risk the project will die when the founder has to change their job / family / life circumstances. Surely the civic-minded thing to do would be to create a sustainable structure that ensures the blog can continue without them.

      Chris Unitt

      October 16, 2012 4:22 pm Reply

      I can see why a shopkeeper might be expected to have some commercial nous, but I don’t think it follows that a blogger should. Actually, in many cases, I reckon that setting up a hyperlocal blog in order to make money would be a pretty pointer to a lack of commercial nous.

      Re sustainability, the ideal with CiB wasn’t that it would become profitable enough to support a salaried staff, it was that there would be lots of people doing their own thing (commercial or otherwise). Point being, the ecology would be sustained, with individual organisms coming and going. I think that ties in the comments by the two Jons below to some extent.

        Jake Grimley

        October 17, 2012 11:14 am Reply

        Aren’t you the archetype of the hyper-local blogger turned shop-keeper proving the point about [lack of] commercial nous? I mean that actual shop you kept in the Bullring.

        Sorry. Don’t even know why I’m getting in on this. Maybe because it feels so nostalgic.

          Chris Unitt

          October 17, 2012 5:09 pm

          Zing! But also yes. Not sure how I missed that – guess my memory still sees fit to block out that episode of my life.

Jon Hickman

October 16, 2012 3:15 pm Reply

I can see that it’s tempting to look at these websites through a model that can easily be identified – the commercial production of news. There are of course other known models that we could use – such as community media. Perhaps if you frame them in a different way you might say that they have succeeded?

To go back to Chris’s point: as much as I like his metaphor, sustainability in the sense of maintaining and reproducing the means of production is a capitalist notion, while sustainability to achieve a desired social outcome is an activist one. Histories of community, activist and alternative media (I recommend the work of Chris Atton) suggest that longevity of production for its own sake is seldom a primary objective of such production. I find it unremarkable that some hyperlocal projects come and go in concert with the lifecycle of their producers or the achievement of their objectives.

Jon Bounds

October 16, 2012 3:42 pm Reply

I forget who said it (or actually I know, but hey, go Google) about perception just being one way to cut through the WGMM (Whole General Mish-Mash) and with hyperlocal content that’s what’s going on right now: there’s tons of it out there, but most isn’t created on sites that were (mainly) modeled on how traditional newspapers did their thing. It might just be the model that’s wrong rather than the scale.

The sustainable structure is there by and large: the Internet.

Jon Bounds

October 16, 2012 4:04 pm Reply

just a btw I don’t think that LiveBrum deserves being past-tensed.

simon gray

October 16, 2012 9:31 pm Reply

Speaking for myself, as the person who set up Birmingham Alive! as the first truly comprehensive events listing website for Birmingham in 1998, and managing to keep it going as a truly comprehensive events site until as late as 2010, it’s not an absence of a commercial approach which caused it to fizzle out of its primary function, or again cause it to fizzle out of its second wind of function as a city centre news aggregation site earlier this year – it’s simply a lack of time on my part to devote to it. Back when I was devoting the most amount of time to it I was single, had a relatively undemanding job (or was unemployed), and little else to occupy my time. Now I have a wife and a cat, like to watch telly in the evening, and have a job which leaves no ‘slack time’ during the day to even spend the odd half an hour every other day or so to top up the content. Unless I was able to make the blog so monetised it could pay a wage even half what my current salary is, no amount of adoption of a commercial approach would be able to solve that problem. I suspect most of the other longstanding bloggers are in similar situations.

Brumpolice

October 16, 2012 9:31 pm Reply

We are always looking to link in with hyperlocal bloggers. Birmingham bloggers are welcome to get in touch http://www.twitter.com/brumpolice.

    Jon Bounds

    October 17, 2012 6:45 am Reply

    And that’s an example of one reason the ‘scene’ (if it indeed was) died in the end—pressure from certain quarters to ‘go mainstream’, which seemed to be essentially to act as a conduit for large Governmental or other public bodies. There’s no money or enjoyment in churning press releases—as local newspapers have found too.

Michael Grimes

October 17, 2012 9:05 am Reply

Don’t forget it was also fun. There was something in the water: suddenly a network emerged in Birmingham, people got excited, met new friends. Eventually, inevitably, that settled down and people moved on.

Michael Grimes

October 17, 2012 9:13 am Reply

Also, ‘failed to deliver’ what? I don’t remember anyone promising to deliver anything.

    simon gray

    October 17, 2012 9:27 am Reply

    As Daz said, apparently the hopes and dreams of an entire industry were resting on our shoulders.

      Michael Grimes

      October 17, 2012 9:33 am Reply

      Hee! Where did he say that?

        simon gray

        October 17, 2012 9:34 am Reply

        On teh wittrs. Which is where most of 2008/9s hyperlocal bloggers do most of our ‘social media content creation activity’ anyway.

Philip John - Lichfield Live

October 17, 2012 9:23 am Reply

Marc, thanks first of all for mentioning us in such a positive light :)

I’d say it’s dangerous to treat the Guardian’s Local project as hyperlocal. A media operation covering a major city (pop. 340k-450k) is hardly comparable to a site like ours covering 30,000 or 2,500 as in Loddon. Plus, while the Guardian had a good philosophy about the journalism there was a massive failure to recognise that local content must be matched with local advertising if it’s to succeed. I refer you to Rick Waghorn’s extensive writings on that.

On viability of hyperlocals what it’s important to remember is that they are quite often hobbies. When you start a hobby you don’t generally think about having to turn it into a home business just to make it sustainable. Instead, if work or other pressures stop you from pursuing that hobby, you just stop – and that’s precisely what’s happened with many hyperlocals.

Success or failure for a hyperlocal depends entirely on the initial aim. If the aim was to replace the traditional media then, yes, Birmingham’s bloggers have failed to deliver. However, I think most would agree when I say that was never the aim. Most hyperlocals, I think, would agree that they complement (or scrutinise) the local media in many cases. Yes, if they stop then the community may well lose out, but not to the extent that they will if they lost the local paper.

Just a note on “Channel Four helped fund a national body for hyperlocals” I would hesitate to call TAL that. In fact, I think it was at TAL12 that Will himself said they’d never sought to represent hyperlocals, but merely to assist the sector. The Hyperlocal Alliance was established to look towards that, although I don’t think we’ll ever have a truly representative body a) because of the wide variety in the sector and b) the time cost is probably far too high for many site owners to take part.

So while I’m sympathetic about your belief in a need for a single body, I’m not entirely convinced such a thing is feasible. It’s interesting you mention local advertising from the likes of Tesco. Many site owners won’t take adverts from nationals on principle, and I thoroughly understand that – we have some very strict rules on that ourselves. We have however been approached a couple of times about carrying adverts from national brands and I suspect it will happen eventually, and it’ll be interesting to see how it looks on the site and how our readers react.

From there I think the Hyperlocal Alliance, rather than pooling sites, could be well placed to help spread advertisers to other hyperlocals, through the networking that happens there. There have already been some nice outcomes from the Alliance (including free training) and there is healthy discussion and I hope that continues and flourishes.

simon gray

October 17, 2012 9:26 am Reply

“But the real prize is a more ruthlessly commercial approach that embraces the potential of aligning hyperlocal content with hyperlocal advertising”

I’m reminded of the cheesy adverts for the curry house which you used to get in the interval at the pictures – “only 5 minutes walk from this cinema”. Of course, it’s all very well the hyperlocal blogger having the commercial nous to think about putting hyperlocal adverts on their blog (notwithstanding the fact that for many of the blogs – *and their audiences* – the idea of putting adverts on the sites is anathema as it introduces the perception of the same lack of editorial independence which advert-funded mainstream media suffers from), but that also relies on the operators of the shops and businesses in the hyperlocal area also having the commercial nous to think it’s worth paying for an advert on the blog in the first place. And of course why would they need to have such ‘commercial nous’? After all, the Selly Sausage cafe and the Tool Discount Centre on the Bristol Road manage to attract plenty of custom just by their existence on the high street, without needing to buy an advert on The Selly Oak Acorn.org.uk; you might argue that the plumber who lives on Katie Road might be a different case who could benefit from an ad – but then, why would that plumber pay for an ad when she could just as easily create her own free one page shop window website which would be more likely to show up in a Google Search for ‘plumber selly oak’ anyway? Better still, she could create her own hyperlocal blog about plumbing, sharing her amusing stories of pipes she’s unblocked, developing her reputation and attracting further custom that way!

    Marc Reeves

    October 17, 2012 10:17 am Reply

    And why can’t the hyperlocal blogger help her to achieve all that on a commercial basis? You’d call her in when you want your sink fixed; why shouldn’t she call you when she wants help to market her business online?

      simon gray

      October 17, 2012 10:24 am Reply

      A good point – the answer though is because most hyperlocal bloggers are not marketing professionals, they’re plumbers and lecturers and gardeners and unemployed people themselves. The hyperlocal bloggers who *are* marketing professionals can and do help out other small businesses and community groups, sometimes for free, sometimes for free.

Rick Waghorn

October 17, 2012 10:01 am Reply

Marc,

Thought-provoking, as ever. A good warm-up for the gig on Thursday; alas I’m elsewhere that day…

201 points can be made; and I don’t intend to revisit the GdnLocal debate again; but unsustainable my a*se would be the phrase that both I and, I suspect, Emily Bell would reach for…

The sweet spot for commercial sustainability – albeit in every likelihood on a part-time basis – is where Tesco (Selly Oak) meets the butcher, the baker and the Selly Oak candlestick-maker.

Open at ‘both ends’ ie to top down advertisers seeking local exposure and bottom up SMEs seeking local audience.

This we can now deliver: https://beta.addiply.com/network

The challenge for AboutMyArea/B12 is that James has no udience. But I can now get the message into Tescos corporate comms team that the *opportunity* exists – sit does for Birmingham CC or regional health authority to place message in B12.

And we can now out-source sales to third parties; the kit is there; the thinking is in place. Now go build….a

Paul Bradshaw

October 17, 2012 10:05 am Reply

I think Marc doth protest a little too much here, and knows that really profits aren’t the measure of most hyperlocals. For Help Me Investigate, the point was always ‘what could you do without a profit motive’. More and more I’m persuaded that a volunteer-based model, as HMI became, is vitally important for plurality in journalism, alongside the developing for-profit and publicly/trust/privately funded models.

The issue is sustainability, not profitability. Profitability is just one route to that, but I don’t think it’s a likely or even important one at this scale. If hyperlocal bloggers have ‘failed to deliver’, it is in anticipating the burnout problem and handing the blog over to other people. But that’s a learning curve.

We also have to accept dead blogs as an integral part of the scene. It costs nothing. And if an issue springs up and passions are reignited, the dead can be resurrected. That costs nothing either. The scene has at the very least created a latent network and community which continues in some places and can be reactivated in others. For that, many people deserve enormous credit.

    Marc Reeves

    October 17, 2012 10:14 am Reply

    I didn’t mention profit or profitability once: I’m stressing the lack of a fundamentally commercial approach that could lead to sustainability. There’s no reason why the business behind the blog can’t be a co-operative or based on the social enterprise model. What dismays me is the apparent lack of interest amongst hyperlocal enthusiasts to even attempt to identify revenue streams, whether that’s through direct advertising, selling their digital expertise to businesses or affiliate marketing etc.

      Paul Bradshaw

      October 17, 2012 10:33 am Reply

      My mistake: I should have said commerciality or something similar. But the apparent lack of interest is probably because for most a commercial model isn’t needed, for the same reason that a fleet of vans isn’t needed. Investing effort in building revenue streams means taking it away from the editorial focus and community purpose of the blog. For a spare time operation that might be all the time you have. You might argue that the result of that investment would mean being able to hire, etc. but that won’t be a priority for many. Indeed in many ways it might be asking a hobbyist to spend less time practising their hobby so they can pay someone else to do it.

Jonathan Walker

October 17, 2012 10:16 am Reply

If predictions haven’t come true that probably means the predictions were wrong, not that someone or something has failed to make them come true:) Isn’t the lesson here one about trying to predict the future? It’s fun and interesting, but you have to do it in the awareness that neither you nor anybody else really knows what the future holds. Don’t be surprised when it’s not what you expected!

For what it’s worth, what I think has happened is that people like to be part of conversations and there was a time when we thought those conversations would take place via blogs. It turns out that Twitter and Facebook are easier and more attractive places for many people to talk to each other. Blogs are there too but as part of the mix.

The idea that blogs would replace local papers or in some way do what the mainstream media does (but better or more local or whatever) was actually pushed as far as I could tell by professional journalists more than hyperlocal bloggers. But I think there was a bit of a tendency on both sides of the fence to forget that writing and researching articles is actually hard work. If you’re not being paid for it then you are going to do it when something comes up which motivates or inspires you – not out of the sense of duty required to provide fresh new copy day after day, even when you’re feeling knackered and just want to watch X-Factor. You can always say to bloggers “quit your job and turn your blog into a business and update it every day like a local newspaper” if you want to but I imagine most will reply “why should I do that and who are you anyway?”

    Jake Grimley

    October 17, 2012 11:26 am Reply

    Sanity.

Philip John - Lichfield Live

October 17, 2012 10:23 am Reply

You’re right that the ‘replacement’ idea was pushed more by traditional journalists concerned about these new entrants into their region. You’re also right about the hard work – one thing I’ve learnt from Ross (the journalist of our operation) is that journalism is an incredibly important activity, whether you call it journalism or not.

Dave Briggs

October 17, 2012 10:28 am Reply

What I find most confusing in this article is Marc’s admission that “…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.”

In other words, hyperlocal bloggers are failing in the same way that the author of the critique of hyperlocal bloggers failed.

Why didn’t Harborne Mile have a “fundamentally commercial approach”?

Maybe for the same reasons some of the other blogs mentioned didn’t?

    Marc Reeves

    October 17, 2012 10:38 am Reply

    Guilty as charged, Dave. My point is that many blogs that are established do fulfill a civic and community purpose thanks to the strenuous efforts of volunteers, but then collapse when those volunteers move on. Surely it’s fair to suggest that having established something of such value, it might be the responsibility of the founders to at least attempt to put them on a more sustainable footing?

      Dave Briggs

      October 17, 2012 10:44 am Reply

      ..and my point is that as a person who started and then understandably moved on from running such a site, you must have the answer to your own question!

      Compare it to any other form of volunteering. People do it for as long as it works out for them. Sometimes they get others on board so the activity outlives their involvement, sometimes they don’t.

      There’s a danger here that you will frighten anyone considering starting blogging by burdening them with all the responsibility from the start!

        simon gray

        October 17, 2012 10:58 am Reply

        There’s also the issue that persuading other volunteers to share in writing for one’s site is often easier said than done; in the middle period of Birmingham Alive! when it was running on its own bespoke CMS I had ideas of effectively franchising the platform out to other towns / cities, letting other people use the same CMS but put their own content in it – but approaching people I knew (even some now notably famous hyperlocal bloggers themselves) didn’t get any bites because they were busy doing their own things.

        And then in the latter era, when I realised I was running out of steam in going to events and writing reviews of them afterwards, and offered it out to other people – making general as well as specific call-outs – I also got no response; that particularly surprised me that even the offer of free tickets to events (even events which would have cost £50+ at the NIA) wasn’t enough to attract people to share the workload!

      Philip John - Lichfield Live

      October 17, 2012 5:35 pm Reply

      “Surely it’s fair to suggest that having established something of such value, it might be the responsibility of the founders to at least attempt to put them on a more sustainable footing?”
      I think that’s where the problem lies, Marc. As many sites are merely part time hobbies it isn’t fair to expect the site owner to put them on a solid footing. Most, I imagine, would hand them over to willing volunteers but there should be no expectation from anyone for any of these sites.

Julia Larden

October 17, 2012 11:03 am Reply

Hi

Er

“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.

[...]

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 [...]

Gee, thanks Marc.

I see Acocks Green is shown without any links. So we’re one of those areas which has ‘withered on the vine’ presumably? In 2008/9 The picture in Acocks Green was Acocks Green Focus Group website already well established, Acocks Green Neighbourhood Forum having a somewhat dead website, but looking to re-start. There was also the very well established Acocks Green History Society website and a plethora of smaller blogs which might not be posting that often.

So what’s the picture like today?

We (AGFG) are still here. http://acocksgreenfocusgroup.org.uk/ We are essentially a campaign group, so we post on our blog when we campaign. Our present main campaign is about saving a threatened 1924 church hall: The Glynn Edwards Hall . There have been a lot of posts recently, and then a slight pause because there has been a pause in events, plus I have been away, but there will be something soon. We are also featuring a picture of Acocks Green in Bloom (We are proud of winning a bronze at first attempt.)

Although already an established group, work with Nick Booth helped to point up that we should make better use of Twitter. We now have a very active presence on Twitter as @AcocksGreenFG and run our latest tweets down the side of the blog, so there is always something happening there. Correction: I have been away for two weeks and have just spotted that our Twitter link is down which is unusual, but shall now be working on it. However, this has also proved to be a very good way of relating to many other people. Quite a few people in Acocks Green from local politicos to the vicar’s wife are also now on Twitter and this way we spread our message and pick up, and debate, a lot of news from around the city and from other hyperlocals too .

Acocks Green Neighbourhood Forum – http://acocks-green-neighbourhood-forum.org/ started a new website after working with the new hyperlocal scene and Nick. This has proved very successful and is still going strong – last post Oct 9 2012. They provide a very useful service especially around local events, local culture, local facilities and programmes generally, and report on the meetings of Acocks Green Neighbourhood Forum. We also liaise with their web mistress, Ged, through Twitter – @Ged_Hughes

There are two good political hyperlocals in Acocks Green:

http://johnoshea.blogspot.co.uk/ (Last post Oct. 17) John is also on Twitter as @politicalhackuk and we often talk that way

and http://rogerharmer.mycouncillor.org.uk/ (Last Post Oct 7) Roger is also occasionally on Twitter as @Rogerbhx

The Grandaddy of all Acocks Green websites is the very good Acocks Green History website at http://aghs.jimdo.com/ This is more of an old fashioned website than a modern blog, and was going long before the hyperlocal scene started, but it is full of very useful information, probably the best local history website in the city and invaluable for information on local conservation issues. Local bloggers now sometimes link to it, and Mike Byrne, the webmaster now occasionally links to us, as well.

There are, as before, a handful of smaller local blogs which do not appear to be doing very much. It is probably inevitable that some blogs will start and then struggle, but we now have a strong presence from five blogs/websites and and an active presence on Twitter. Some of this was around before the hyperlocal movement sprung up, but this has definitely helped enhance things. It is now quite easy to find out what is going on in Acocks Green whether you are looking for a cultural event, campaign updates, political reports or want to know more about a local building. I think we now also have more of a presence city wide and do a bit of stirring now and then in debates there!

So: where are w

I see

Mike Rawlins

October 17, 2012 11:04 am Reply

We failed to deliver?

What did we fail to deliver? Maybe we delivered ‘exactly’ what we wanted and then moved on.

Unlike the dead tree press, hyperlocals can move on, they aren’t heavily invested in an archaic content delivery process with lots of highly trained and woefully underpaid staff who are dumbed down in a lot of cases just to fill in the gaps around the adverts.

Over the years the dead tree press have taken great joy in deriding the hyperlocal sites and Marc to be honest I think you are guilty of doing this in this very piece. I bet there isn’t one news type hyperlocal that hasn’t been targeted in some way by their local press. Just last night I saw the esteemed editor of a large local paper snidely remarking

‘Headline howler of the week (pt2). Or, why it takes more than just a web connection to be a journalist’ and pointing to a headline on a hyperlocal site.

This is the editor of the same paper who’s journalists used to come on to Pits n Pots and anonymously correct our grammar or spelling, journalists who were to stupid to realise that only journalists use [sic] because they don’t want people to think they are dumb.

We always used to get told ‘you’re not proper journalists, you don’t do the research…’

Marc if you had done a bit of research you will have seen that the ‘dedicated volunteer’ (me), over at Pits n Pots hasn’t posted any content in over 11 weeks due to holidays, personal and work commitments. Pits n Pots isn’t dead but I’m certainly not keeping things going at the moment.

Going back the failed to deliver aspect, just because one site doesn’t do as well as you expected and closes doesn’t mean they have failed or there is a deficit, often a new site or sites will come in to fill the gap. In Stoke there are a couple of sites that are doing the work we used to do on PnP. Rather than thinking about the one site failing to deliver, think of it as the hyperlocal version of a change of editor, rebrand or even change of format all the things & phrases the dead tree press as so fond of using to try and believe that they are still viable businesses.

Ultimately the other sites in Stoke are and may well continue to do a better job than I am doing, which is great it means that there is still a market, an appetite and a desire, even better it means I can retire, if I wish, knowing that power is still being held to account by someone.

As for the ‘ruthlessly commercial approach’ and ‘hyperlocals coming together’, the dead tree press have already done this research for us in the guise of Local People sites….

Kevin Chuck

October 17, 2012 11:21 am Reply

Is there a problem with the city rather than the people involved? Hyperlocal media seems to be enjoying commercial success elsewhere in the country so at first sight it seems anomalous that the enthusiasm in Birmingham has not translated into much that is sustainable.

I’ve lived in both London and Birmingham so perhaps a comparison between the two might give some clues.

Firstly Birmingham is more city centre centric. Brummies shop, eat, drink and play more in town than do Londoners who tend to see the centre as somewhere that tourists go. This significantly reduces potential hyperlocal ad spend in key areas. London is more a college of villages than Birmingham where my impression is that borders between different parts of town are more blurred and association with the very local is less strong. There are exceptions to this, I’m talking in generalities.

Secondly, the printed press has been more resilient in Birmingham than London. Granted the contraction in Birmingham has been brutal but it’s been worse in London with many areas not being covered by a newspaper. This has given some digital news providers a monopoly which has made commercial success much easier. One reason for the relative success of Birmingham newspapers is probably sports reporting which is high quality. They owe their continued survival to writers like Mat Kendrick.

Thirdly, the ethnic mix of Birmingham may make hyperlocal harder. I don’t know the Asian media scene in the city very well but in London it is very vibrant at the local level and makes it very hard for hyperlocals to break into areas with a significant Asian population of which there is a greater number in Birmingham.

Hyperlocal bloggers have been a bit of a disappointment everywhere not just Birmingham and there is little evidence that this kind of approach is anything other than a time-filling exercise for the underemployed. Success in hyperlocal has been achieved almost universally by those who have taken a news or events driven approach. Breaking news in particular seems to be critical for success. One London based hyperlocal told me last week that they received 11,000 visits on a single day following coverage of a serious accident. I’d be willing to bet a tidy sum that this is the highest ever daily traffic for a UK hyperlocal site. Solitary bloggers aren’t equipped to respond to every piece of breaking news and therefore never achieve the kind of audience necessary for sustainability.

The other problem in Birmingham has been the success that Trinity Mirror has had in blunting the threat from hyperlocal. They must have found it hard to believe their luck when their nascent competition agreed to give away their content to them for free. Sites that agreed to this ill-conceived deal effectively ended any chance of commercial viability.

I don’t necessarily believe that Birmingham isn’t right for hyperlocal but it does perhaps face greater challenges than other areas. A start would be to look at what is working elsewhere and adapt a successful approach to local conditions.

    Jon Bounds

    October 17, 2012 12:07 pm Reply

    “a time-filling exercise for the underemployed”

    In one sense, the nakedly commercial, right-wing, money-driven, tunnel visionary, sense this is right.

    In another, sod off Kevin and try not judging other people by what you perceive to be their motives. I can judge tens of “hyperlocal” successes based on what the people who did what they wanted to do wanted to do.

      Kevin Chuck

      October 17, 2012 12:46 pm Reply

      ‘In one sense, the nakedly commercial, right-wing, money-driven, tunnel visionary, sense this is right.’

      So in another, the no financial responsibilities, can live off benefits/my trust fund, I don’t care if anyone reads what I write, sense it is wrong?

      ‘I can judge tens of “hyperlocal” successes based on what the people who did what they wanted to do wanted to do.’

      In the real world doing what you want to do want to do is not a benchmark for success unless personal gratification is all that matters to you. A pre-condition of claiming success for any digitial enterprise is audience, if you don’t have that you are wasting your time. The fact that most people who achieve audience also go on to bring in revenue doesn’t make them right wing, money grubbers. It makes them competent individuals who have built something sustainable and valuable to their community. If you don’t need to earn a living fine but please have a bit more respect for those that do.

        Jon Bounds

        October 17, 2012 12:49 pm Reply

        But you don’t have to earn a living doing _this_. So if you want to do this for any other reason you can too.

        In a happy World doing what you want to do is the very definition of success. It’s just that we often have to spend a lot of time earning a living. But we can do that and then do some stuff online, for a bit, in any form we like.

        Sorry if that annoys you.

          Kevin Chuck

          October 17, 2012 1:16 pm

          Jon, so you get paid for other work you do? You right wing, money driven, tunnel visionary!

          Jon Bounds

          October 17, 2012 1:19 pm

          I don’t attempt to deny anyone else the opportunity to ‘dick around with the Internet’ as a hobby, or attempt to insult those that do.

          Kevin Chuck

          October 17, 2012 3:10 pm

          “I don’t attempt to deny anyone else the opportunity to ‘dick around with the Internet’ as a hobby, or attempt to insult those that do.”

          But you do adopt a lofty patrician contempt for those that need their time and effort in this field to pay in order to make a living.

        Julia Larden

        October 17, 2012 12:57 pm Reply

        ‘The fact that most people who achieve audiences go on to bring in revenue’ … Sorry, but this is not necessarily the case. We are interested in helping to save old buildings, getting a redesign for Acocks Green Centre (we look to be part way there now, and I think our work has helped) and in protecting and improving the local features of Acocks Green in other ways too. We gauge our success partly on the number of hits we get (We certainly do want an audience and there would be no point in having the blog without one.) but even more on what we help achieve as a result of the pieces that we that we publish on the net. Are we ‘underemployed’? Some of us struggle to find the time, but we do what we do because we want to make a difference – and NOT to our bank balances!!

        Michael Grimes

        October 17, 2012 1:02 pm Reply

        I don’t think starting a blog is a wise choice If you trying to find a living.

        “In the real world doing what you want to do want to do is not a benchmark for success unless personal gratification is all that matters to you”

        And that’s exactly the point: many of us started blogging for fun, not because we were trying to start something sustainable. We did stuff – we had some successes – then moved on.

        Nothing lasts forever; in these fast-moving times, how long does something have to last before it’s deemed ‘sustainable’?

        Jon Bounds

        October 17, 2012 3:12 pm Reply

        No-one has a divine right to make a living from their chosen field. Maybe journalism is a lot more like making music or art these days.

    Philip John - Lichfield Live

    October 17, 2012 5:45 pm Reply

    “The other problem in Birmingham has been the success that Trinity Mirror has had in blunting the threat from hyperlocal. They must have found it hard to believe their luck when their nascent competition agreed to give away their content to them for free.”
    Presumably you’re talking about Your Communities? If so you are sorely misguided. Sites that are part of that group have access to some of the most valuable assets that TM have in Brum. Less of the Armchair Analysis please.

Stacey Barnfield

October 17, 2012 11:53 am Reply

Interesting read, Marc, as ever – particularly regarding the finances.

Should a blogger wish to pursue a model based on commercial support (although I wonder how many do) I think the challenge will always be a ‘reach’ that can be guaranteed day-in day-out. It’s the same challenge now faced by traditional media companies like mine, as we hit the print/digital crossroads. Until a blogger can guarantee a mass through-the-letterbox-style audience in a locked-down distribution model once mastered by free weeklies, larger advertisers are always going to be harder to win over. Sure, the social media presence is fantastic, but how much further than this does a message go? Perhaps when/if Twitter and Facebook are so ubiquitous and on everyone’s living room internet TV in a few years’ time, with status updates popping up on your screen as you watch Corrie, there might be a new world of commercial opportunities big and small.

I quite like Simon’s reference to the cheesy curry house cinema ads (weren’t/aren’t they great?). Personally I have no problem with this form of advertising, from a reader or journalism perspective. It wouldn’t make me think differently about the site’s editorial principles – just that it’s in tune with local business and reader habits.

Great debate here. Interesting thoughts.

Sadly I can’t make next week’s event (it’s half-term – family hols) but hope it goes well.

Karen Strunks

October 17, 2012 11:56 am Reply

The only way I’ve ever heard propose for a local/hyperlocal/microlocal site to become sustainable is financially is via advertising. When you start down the route, you handle money, accounts, the advertisers themselves as they become clients, and you create a whole other job on top of keeping up with writing on the site. Apart from the time/effort and skills required to do this, it may be that it’s actually a deliberate choice by some not to get into marketing or to monetise their blog.

When you talk failure, you have to think of the successes. It could be seen as a success that the hyperloal blogs have kept themselves free from the pressure of taking on advertisers and all that goes with it. They haven’t got the overheads of premises, staff, printers, deadlines, etc. People will start their hyperlocal blogs for a myriad of reasons and no one else can decide what they should or shouldn’t do with their site. You wouldn’t want to stop someone who was thinking about starting their own hyperlocal blog becuase they thought they had to make money from it.

There’s a certain freedom in not being reliant on anyone else. Some people don’t want to professionalise their services; that’s a big expectation to put upon someone. Even if the finacial rewards are not there or apprarent, there are other ways of measuring success; yes, the civic pride, but also it’s a way of extending a network and place within the community (that’s not to be underestimated for an individual), and in some instances it has led to work opportunities because their blog has been a showcase for their skills etc.

I had all the good intentions in the world when I started my ‘micro’ local blog which covers just 300 flats. http://www.wakegreenpark.blogspot.com It’s gets updated as and when I feel I can. However, what I am pleased about is that it stands as a reference for people considering moving into the area, and I get a couple of emails a month from potential buyers (maybe I could make my money from commission from the estate agents!). And as with any blog, hyperlocal or otherwise, it stands as an archive and reference for the area. A snapshot in time.

I’m looking forward to the event next week.

Mike Rawlins

October 17, 2012 12:07 pm Reply

I may sound a bit angry in my previous comment but to put it in perspective:

The BBC didn’t fail when they pulled their version of Local TV
XYZ Production company didn’t fail when they didn’t get commissioned for a second series of ‘Garden relocation embarrassing house doctor in the jungle’.
Papers never fail when they move broadsheet to tabloid, move to weekly or cancel the Sunday edition. (That is the fault of the public for not supporting them).

So why do hyperlocals ‘fail’? Surely it is just the same as any or all of the above?

Sas Taylor

October 17, 2012 12:32 pm Reply

Marc, as already identified, you seem only to be able to see sustainability in terms of commercial viability. We have ads and a business directory on the site – both of which are free to local businesses, charities and organisations.

Our main focus at B31 Voices (which is alive and kicking and very active and many thanks for the mention! *cough*) is finding ways to ensure sustainability by building a site that is run by the community. As Simon G mentioned, it can be very difficult to build up an army of contributors to keep things going when the founders can’t. Many of our guest posters have written one or two posts and not bothered again for whatever reason, whether through lack of time or not having anything else to write about.

At the moment, we’re building up more and more links with local charities and voluntary organisations, police, schools and others and intend to give them a hand to learn how to post articles themselves. We hope to see B31 Voices grow into a community.

We’re hoping that sustainability will eventually come in the form of active community members rather than Tesco adverts.

As for content, Jon B – we do regurgitate a lot of press releases ;) However, this is because people want to read them! Then they’re on the site and more likely to see the positive events and activities taking place in the community, alongside campaigns run by local people and the good work done by local charities. In tandem with Twitter and Facebook, they can interact with their community and, hopefully, get back a little pride in it!

    Julia Larden

    October 17, 2012 1:18 pm Reply

    I think Sas’s very obviously highly successful B31 Voices started a little while after the old Pete Ashton piece on Brum blogs which Marc is linking to. I think this is also part of the point. Some of these blogs on that old post (e.g. two of the Acocks Green ones listed here) are just fine thanks. A few others have gone under. That’s called life. But sustainable ones, like Sas’s, have also appeared since. And there is this near neighbour of ours (who Ged and I have been chatting with on Twitter) who set up as a blog this month, last post was today – looks promising?

    http://hall-green-neighbourhood-forum.org/

Rick Waghorn

October 17, 2012 12:50 pm Reply

Fascinating. In many regards…

Our NESTA project for the community of Loddon, Norfolk, touches upon many of the concerns and issues raised above.

So how does that 3,000-strong community actually reward one young man in their midst – Ben Olive – for reporting the affairs of their parish council on his http://loddoneye.com ?

There will never be a full-time living for a Ben – or the next Ben as we seek to build a platform a succession of Bens taking up the village reporter role – but can we build a ’21st Century Village Correspondent’ platform who can be ‘rewarded’ with £100 per week sustained out of a combination of parish magazine advertisers and national brands seeking local home – ie/eg East of England Co-op (Loddon)?

That’s our challenge; and in the absence of a Local ‘TV’ station for vaste swathes of the UK, can we not build a parish ‘TV’ station broadcast off the church tower of Holy Trinity, Loddon…

http://loddoneye.com/video

Our intent is not to be nakedly commercial, but to be sustainable; to build a platform that as Ben wearies or moves on, can then be handed on to another young person in that community as a ‘showcase’ for their own journalistic hopes and ambitions.

As well as empowering the 52 advertisers in the parish magazine that have a web presence to find a new, online home around a rural wifi portal play; one that is, therefore, obvious and available to every visitor to that community as they seek connectivity just as I would in Starbucks (Selly Oak).

I’ve talked before of ‘not-for-loss’ models of local journalism; one up ambition-wise from the ease with which people talk of ‘not-for-profits’.

Why shouldn’t the Ben Olives of this world be rewarded for eight hours a month of their time and resource?

And then we just create a network of Bens; build a new, local media landscape for the UK from the bottom up…

IMHO, of course.

best etc

Rick Waghorn

October 17, 2012 12:58 pm Reply

By way of a little more background on #21VC… this was in BetaRocket yesterday, the website for tech start-ups in the North-East.

http://www.betarocket.co.uk/2012/10/15/local-journalism-in-a-mobile-age/

A pleasant change from me blathering on, hopefully.

Rick Waghorn

October 17, 2012 1:08 pm Reply

By way of further explanation re #21VC.

BetaRocket this week: http://www.betarocket.co.uk/2012/10/15/local-journalism-in-a-mobile-age/

best etc

Daz Wright

October 17, 2012 1:24 pm Reply

I really don’t think of us had any intention of “holding anyone” to account in developing locally relevant sites and certainly didn’t see their production as any reaction to a failure of the mainstream press.

The first local site we put together, in 1999, had one purpose, we could finally make and see pictures of things we knew and recognised on the Internet. That might sound trite now but the novelty at that point was something worth pursuing. I’d say that many of us looked on with some bewilderment when the mainstream media popped up years later and coined the term “hyperlocal”, I’m still not convinced it means anything.

My glib explanation of my motives back then might sound ridiculous now but this is how things have changed and continue to change. This also illustrates the vacuous nature of the argument that sites need to be sustainable. It’s the Internet, for an outlay of £5 you can have a site up and running in less than hour. If it doesn’t work, then give up and make another one. It isn’t like the mainstream media where there is an investment in the means of production.

This is why such local web presence needs to be inherently flexible and adapt over time. Much of the work of local sites now happens through other media such as Facebook, this isn’t because local sites have failed to adapt to Facebook, it’s just more convenient. Ten years ago we couldn’t conceive of Facebook, I can’t conceive of what might replace it in another ten years time.

One thing I do hope is that the current models don’t prove to be so sustainable that people can’t be bothered to try new ways of talking to each other in the future.

Corganisers

October 17, 2012 1:57 pm Reply

Interesting article. There is certainly still hope for hyperlocal media. NESTA project is a great way of supporting the cause. As a strategic partner the Community Organisers programme is looking forward to seeing it develop. They produced a brilliant and telling report on the issue in case you missed it

pauline geoghegan

October 17, 2012 2:06 pm Reply

Fascinating stuff. Media in flux dot com. I do agree with one thing – there is a democratic defecit in Bham. I look forward to next week.
Pauline Geoghegan twitter @politicsinbrum

Jon Bounds

October 17, 2012 3:18 pm Reply

One way of looking through this bit of the WSOGMM (http://www.saunalahti.fi/huuhilo/dna5.htm):

Taken as a whole, and for an area defined by someone else, some people who didn’t set out to or claim they were doing a thing failed to do so in a way that fits into one definition of success.

Lots of stuff does and did happen in lots of ways, some where people wanted money for doing it some where people wanted something else.

I think the world itself has moved on. And, like Marc, I don’t think there is a huge amount of influence from the ‘hyperlocal scene’ in whatever regional media is—and that’s because in a capitalist society most influence flows from money. And there just isn’t a huge amount of that here.

Nicky Getgood

October 17, 2012 7:40 pm Reply

Hi Marc

Late to the debate and other people have said what I’d have said more eloquently than I would have done. I must admit that reading that people who have put a lot of time, energy and passion into creating something for and around communities they love have somehow ‘failed to deliver’ because they didn’t implement a business model to it is a bit galling, but that seems to be the point – it’s kick-started quite a discussion.

What I feel I must point out is that digbeth.org is no longer my site – it’s in the hands of Pamela Pinski and has been since the inevitable change in my life circumstances precipitated a move to Cardiff in December last year. I wrote about it here: http://talkaboutlocal.org.uk/hyperlocal-exit-strategy/.

Pamela took on digbeth.org because it works for her and Digbeth Residents’ Association, of which she is secretary, and I suppose she will carry on with it until it doesn’t, at which point she can either hand it onto someone else it might work for or let it go. Like me, Pamela has a day-job that keeps her busy and has neither the time nor the inclination to take a ‘ruthlessly commercial approach’ to the website, nor would I want her to feel under pressure to do so.

Thanks, Nicky.

Ross H

October 24, 2012 8:18 pm Reply

Some really interesting point and I’m sure the bee will land firmly in my bonnet at the Rethink Regional debate tomorrow, but some of the points I wanted to make are probably summed up on a post I wrote not so long back about how we measure success:

http://thejournalismnotepad.co.uk/2012/06/28/is-money-still-the-only-metric-of-success-when-it-comes-to-journalism/