Local is local for different people for different reasons — some to do with legislature, economics, transport, facilities, people, even “community” (another word with little definite meaning). Local in newsgathering has been based upon technologies (eg transmitter placement) or economies of scale (how many towns can a newspaper serve on the same staff?) — but with those areas no longer valid, how is news to be gathered and published.

Hyperlocal is the buzzword that being used to describe those new models — “The term “hyperlocal” is sometimes used to refer to news coverage of community-level events.” (Wikipedia). Community in this sense has no real definition — except that it’s assumed to be smaller than the “local” of the traditional news gatherer.

It’s understood that online news sources (those that are extensions of the off-web mechanisms) are struggling in part because people don’t read every page on their website — only the stories that interest them. The phrase in the US is “print dollars become online dimes” (or somesuch) — the same content (and a potentially wider audience for each piece) doesn’t generate the same revenues. This is because it’s possible to split, target and assess those eyeballs and click-throughs.

Extend that into the “local arena” and there’s less room for the niche — it’s not feasible at all to suggest that advertising can pay to generate  truly niche content. A stark contrast with niche but non-geographic interests, which can find a audience online that outstrips any a conventionally distributed source can provide.

A quick and dirty example: It’s no good saying that an announcement of (say) a new ukulele group in a suburb is of interest to all in that suburb — it isn’t — and as filtering gets better that information will only reach those that care enough and are local enough. At that level even a specialist shop won’t pay enough to gather than information.

It wouldn’t work in a current (read historical) “local” news source — unless as a little bit of human interest filler, and it wasn’t that item that was attracting the advertisers — it was a place in the whole “package”, which soon will no longer exist.

But there are people and companies that still want to do the local news gathering — why? There are a few competing (or complimentary) models emerging — here’s one way I think we can divide them:

  • the very local, volunteer run (one or two people) blog (often no ads, or a trickle of Google ad money — but no real desire to make money)
  • the local blog that runs (sort of) like a small newspaper (ads are often sold direct to local business in the same way as a newspaper)
  • the network — where sub-sites for areas are created (the ads are sold centrally, the object is to keep the overall site running rather than the sub-sites)
  • the aggregator — where content is electronically pulled from various social (or news) spaces — (ads sold by the aggregator for the aggregator)

All but the volunteer-led source are facing the exact same problem as the “traditional operators” — a fight between scale of operation and potential income. The local blog “newspaper” has more flexibility and less costs than the traditional operator and can work on much tighter margins, but it still has to balance between area covered and effort expended. What the two “ground-up” models have as an advantage is that they can feel the size of the area for themselves from experience, they are covering an area that makes sense to them. This might not be at a level that can attract enough advertisements (Philip John is encouraged by the take-up on The Lichfield Blog, but it can’t be paying for much above server costs — will it eventually? I have no idea). What the networks and the aggregators seem to be doing is picking a size that they can sell advertisements too and making that the area on which they focus.

I did a very quick, small and unscientific survey on Twitter asking people what sort of area felt “local” to them — with these results. People had very different ideas of “local” — a road with 35 people, to a country with 4,500,000. Even those picking the same definition (eg my suburb) had wide ideas of what size that was. This isn’t surprising — and many people (rightly) said things to the effect that “my local airport is further away than my local shop” and “it depends”.

Without some system of “soviets” — a network of ultra local sites, each feeding upwards and having new input at each level of scale — there’s no way that one news source (or type of news source) can cover all of the news needs of each people. What’s happened in the past is that the “distribution” scale featured it’s own level and a pick’n’mix of that below — people understandably felt that wasn’t serving them well and have started to create outlets at different scale. These so far have worked in tandem with existing outlets — so aren’t really equipped to replace them.

The worrying (for some) is that the “distribution” scale corresponded roughly with that of legislature (although not a good fit always) — so that’s a gap that is less obviously well filled. Pits’n’Pots – for example – does a great job at the level of Stoke’s Council, but what independent outlet is operating at the scale of regional development agency? Is there anyone that can hold AWM to account (although one might argue that few do anyway)?

It’s my contention that different types of sites will plug these gaps — I could see a “what are they up to” site run for most legislative bodies or quangos, or different sites sharing resources to hold bodies to account. Support networks, collaboration will be what’s needed. There are some businesses there (tech support, local ad sales perhaps), but it’s not huge profits — and there aren’t certainly for content creators.

It’s lucky, therefore, that most content creators are doing it out of duty or love.

We’re in a period of transition — we know that no-one source is enough, but the don’t yet have the methods to pick the bits from separate sources. Aggregation tools as they stand aren’t the answer, and it’s difficult for people to be brave enough to “trust the network” as we have to.

It’ll come, it’s coming — but we’re not there yet — exciting isn’t it?