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Community Journalism: Hyperlocal Sustainability


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© Cardiff University via

This is a transcript of my video/mini-lecture for Cardiff University's MOOC in Community Journalism, discussing a number of approaches to ensuring your community site can ensure it has the funding to survive.

Making a hyperlocal site sustainable in the long term can be hard work. There is no one solution that works – it depends on your community, the local economy and what you are trying to achieve.

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Community Journalism: Hyperlocal Sustainability

  1. 1. Community Journalism Presenter: Damian Radcliffe Week 5 Step 5.4 Hyperlocal sustainability Hi there. Today we're going to be talking about how to make your hyperlocal site sustainable. This is probably something you've already given quite a bit of thought to. But hopefully, over the course of the next 10 or 15 minutes or so, will be an opportunity not just to recap some things that you've already considered, but perhaps an opportunity to explore some ideas around those things that you hadn't previously thought about. So without further ado, I'm Damian Radcliffe. I'm an Honorary Research Fellow here at Cardiff University. So let's move on and talk a little bit about different ways in which you can make your site sustainable. This is hopefully something you're thinking about before you launch your site. But if you have launched it, now is the time to start to consider these things. So often it's very easy to get carried away with the excitement of launching a site and perhaps lose sight of some of the other things that you need to start to consider. And most importantly perhaps the biggest question of that is, how to make your site sustainable. And indeed defining what we mean by sustainability. It's a very nuanced term, and there are lots of different ways in which we can look at sustainability. Here a number of ideas for you. The first one, and the most obvious one for a lot of people will be, how to make their site pay. There are examples of people who do this and have managed to turn it into a full time profession that pays for itself. But those examples are perhaps few and far between. So here's a few examples of those people who've managed to make it work, and they range from quite a few different sites dotted across the UK. What I would recommend you do is actually have a look at a number of these sites, if not all of them, and really just get a sense of what do they do, how they work. You'll find they're all completely different from one another. And looking at those sites will give you ideas to either reinforce some of the things that you're doing and that you want to do, or perhaps trigger some ideas for other suggestions and ways in which you might look to make your site sustainable from a financial standpoint. I think what's clear when you look at any of those examples, is that they all use multiple income streams with which to survive. Generally speaking, they tend to spread their risks and have a variety of different income sources. The benefit of this is a simple one. It's a cliché and we have a very cheesy image here to reflect that. But it's worth not putting - you want to make sure you don't put all of your eggs in one basket. Spread your risk, look at different multiple income sources, and I'm going to show you what some of those might be.
  2. 2. So the most obvious one is online advertising. But what we're increasingly seeing in this space is that offline also continues to work well and to resonate. So a number of publications have all got print versions of their website, and that offers them an opportunity to get different advertisers sometimes to those who advertise on their website, and sometimes people who advertise on both. And given that some advertisers are perhaps sceptical about the benefits of digital advertising, or certainly don't necessarily understand how the small hyperlocal site might work, and what their return on investment is, something more tangible and more fashioned like a newspaper can work for them. But also, you can look at other ways of producing printed publications. The SE1 website prints a monthly What's On Guide, which is a fantastic means to understand what's going on in that post code. And they include advertising as part of that mix. Similarly, there are a few examples of publishers who are using their site as an opportunity to leverage additional sources of income by using the site almost as a portfolio for their skills and their wares. So some people do that around social media. And we've also seen a few more perhaps, creative examples of this in recent years as well. Londonist which is a London-wide local site, has started to publish and sell eBooks. The website based up in Beverly, up in the north of England, has started to do something that newspapers used to do - and was a huge source of traditional income for them - in that they publish a property supplement. which is one of the oldest running hyperlocal sites in London. It produces a weekly newsletter, which includes advertising. But when you sign up for the newsletter and you sign up for the Chiswick website, you have to hand over a certain element of signup information, just as you do frequently when you sign up for any kind of newsletter. But they're able to use that to explain to potential advertisers a bit more about their client base, and from that actually demonstrate how targeted their advertising can be. So they're using the newsletter as one of their sources for income. Some of the larger, more regional and city-wide sites, particularly those run by newspaper groups, have been doing local deals for a while. Less common on the hyperlocal side, but you will find Groupon and the Caerphilly Observer working together. And then MonTV, which is an online TV station in Monmouthshire in Wales, has recently branched out into providing expertise for other people who want to do a similar sort of operation to them. So they provide web hosting and tech support and charge a consultancy fee for that as one of the sources of income. So that gives you their very different, diverse ideas of ways in which you can generate income for your site, and there will be plenty of others to add to that. Trust and Foundations are quite an interesting area to look at. In the past couple of years, they've started to invest in hyperlocal media in a way that previously just wasn't happening. So really, since 2012, we've started to see an interest here from organisations who are interested in technology, in engaging citizens, in reaching out to people in new and interesting ways, in tackling perhaps the information deficit that
  3. 3. some communities are facing. And often, it's worth keeping an eye out for these sorts of funding opportunities. They're competitive processes, they can be very time consuming, and there's no guarantee of success. But they can potentially provide quite a sizable single sum of money for you to experiment or do new and interesting things with you site. So, definitely something to keep an eye out for. Local councils, they're an obvious source of funding, perhaps for some hyperlocal sites. But also, attracting or taking money from them potentially can be a double-edged sword. So my view is that actually, councils really need hyperlocal sites because they provide opportunities to for them to reach out and engage with communities who perhaps, they wouldn't necessarily otherwise reach. They're desperate to engage with the people who pay for them through their council tax, and they want to make people aware of the services that they offer, and changes to those services, and so forth. And lots of hyperlocals are looking for money, and they're also looking for content. So there are great opportunities to join up between the two. However, I know a number of publishers who will say they would never take money from the local council because they feel it would potentially jeopardise their editorial integrity, and it would make it difficult for them at some point down the line to criticise or be critical of a local council. And indeed that if they weren't at certain points or that it might open them to criticism from their audience, that actually they're going soft on the council because they get income and funding from them. So you have to make you own judgement call on whether councils and other local bodies are for you. It's a nuanced debate, but one that's definitely worth having a think about. Now one thing that often gets overlooked when we talk about sustainability is the fact that this is not just about money and income generation. Whether you're doing this full time, part time, or even just on the side, but you need a little bit of money to tick over to pay for your hosting, maybe pay for a designer to organise some marketing materials, and so forth. Sustainability isn't just about generating the money to be able to do those things. First of all, we see quite often that you enter into producing your site and launching it with a great flurry of enthusiasm and ambition, and vision, and energy. But gradually over time, running your site can be tiring, and it can take its toll, and it can have an impact. So sustaining that momentum is a real challenge. It's something that you need to consider, as to what is your plan to ensure that you don't run out of steam too quickly. One way in which you can do that is to recruit other people to help you. You don't have to do this is as a one-man band. You can work with volunteers or paid skilled workers from your locality who can help you with particular aspects of your site. Well you've probably already decided on your business model by this stage. But if you haven't, then the sustainability element should be factored into your thinking. Clearly, certain types of sites are much easier to maintain, much more low cost, and don't require very much time and input put into them. Say things like forums, which remain extremely popular, can tick over and often manage themselves with very minimal effort from you, the founder. But there are a very particular type of site, often
  4. 4. discussing particular kinds of issues that are not terribly newsy, and if what you want to do is be more of a local news source for your community, rather than perhaps a hub for community information for people to talk with one another, then that kind of model doesn't certainly work for you. So whatever model that you pick, my advice would just be to make sure you factor sustainability into everything that you do. Alongside that, it's always worth considering having an exit strategy. Circumstances change, people move, you might have a family, you might take on a new job, and all these kinds of things might mean that the time and effort and energy you could invest in your site is no longer sustainable. And therefore you need to think about what's going to happen to the site. Now there are some examples like Digbeth is Good or Bournville News where the original founders moved on and people took on those sites and they're still alive and kicking today and producing great work. But there are other sites that have closed, like the SR2 blog up in Sunderland, or the Pits n Pots blog in Stoke, which has been mothballed. And if you've invested huge amounts of time and effort and energy into making your site work, I think it's a real shame if it disappears when your circumstances change. So you may want to think very carefully about how to maintain the site should anything happen to you or you need to move on and do something else. So there you have it. There's a few thoughts for you to consider in terms of how you might make your hyperlocal site sustainable. And I suggest you look at both income sources and human resources to see if you come up with a combination that works for you.