Hyperlocal websites: 10 ideas

Over the past few months, I’ve been researching ways that hyperlocal sites and local newspapers/websites could work together. In my opinion, in many cases the relationship between the two is improving although most would probably suggest there’s a way to go yet.

The idea for this list came out of a few of those conversations. While few, if any, hyperlocal sites seek to replace the local newspaper, I think there are a fair few principles hyperlocal sites could take from local newspapers to attract a wider audience.

To anyone who works in newsrooms, the list below won’t come as a surprise. It’s not intended to be the musing of an arrogant journalist seeking to tell those with hyperlocal sites how to do things – it’s really just ideas from local newspapers which have evolved to serve their communities for over 100 years and, in most cases, continue to do so very well.

1. Weather

There’s a reason why newspapers spend a fair bit of money on weather for their newspapers – people want it, and the more local the better. That’s good news for hyperlocal sites, because widgets such as the ones from the Met Office make that a quick win for you.

2. Campaigns

This might be just a lack of experience on my part, but I haven’t seen any hyperlocal news sites which campaign, other than those sites which are set up for a campaigning cause. Newspapers run campaigns which they are hopeful of winning, and which they know will resonate with large sections of the community. Why not do the same at a hyperlocal level?

3. Find space for people to have a voice

It might seem an odd thing to say when websites have the ability to instantly comment on stories, something newspapers don’t. But to me there’s a big difference between the letters page of a newspaper and the comments box – the letters page is a fixture of the newspaper whereas as the comments box can be subservient to the journalist’s story. It’s a place where the reader sets the agenda. It might not be the agenda which you like, but it’s the agenda the reader likes.

4. Don’t get carried away with pet issues

Every now and again, newspapers can feel a little lop-sided towards one particular issue or cause. This can be often because a reporter enjoys writing about that issue. I can’t remember why, but I once developed an obsession with the fact that one of the platforms at the local train station didn’t have a roof – maybe something to do with the fact I used that platforms most days. The local council swore blind I was obsessed, I argued it was a story readers were interested in. Maybe they were, but in hindsight I understand why the newsdesk groaned every time platform four was mentioned on my newslist. In other words, stick to stuff which you know will appeal to your audience.

5. Readers don’t care about rivals

Ok, so we all know there are some regional newspapers which break this rule but generally, you won’t see a regional newspaper attacking a rival publication, or even criticizing them. The reason for this is that the reader doesn’t really care.

6. Pictures, pictures, pictures

I can guess why hyperlocal sites are sometimes short on pictures – it’s the hardest part of the story package to get because it can be time consuming. But there are other ways – submitted pictures, perhaps, or use of Flickr images (with permission). Maybe even approaching the local paper for the image might be a good way of starting a relationship.

7. Wider news

Many newspapers still pay for access to national news services and carry national news stories. Now while that may not be an option for many hyperlocal site operators, how about applying the principle to regional news sites? Taking an RSS feeds of regional newspaper sites would, I think, provide more things for users to look at, providing them with the opportunity to get access all the news they need via you – rather like the principle of the national news page.

8. Nostalgia

The old newsroom joke that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be couldn’t be more wrong – it’s as popular now as it always has been. Again, a good working relationship with the local newspaper (and its big archive) would help here – but delving into the archive section of the local library is another alternative.

9. Columnists

Chosen correctly, columnists for even the smallest newspaper can drive sales and help provide even better coverage of a local area. One mistake some papers have made is to assume that a print column can be transformed into an online blog without any changes being made. It can’t – interaction being the key difference here – but a column can still work online, as long as it is marked as such.

10. Sharing tips

It’s not uncommon for journalists working in different parts of the country to work together on a story if it helps them get the story. Could the same work for hyperlocal sites by working with local newspapers if you haven’t got the time/resource to complete a story?

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50 comments

  1. A good list of 10 ideas, many of which I can relate to as a former reporter (especially number 4 – mine was anything to do with the Army!).
    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your thoughts on nostalgia and campaigns. I was speaking to a blogger the other day who was chomping at the bit to get her hands on a newspaper’s photography archive.
    If there’s anything that stimulates conversation it is a trip down memory lane. What’s more if hyperlocals published pictures of their area from yesteryear I think all sorts of new-old pictures would emerge.
    Whereas a big local newspaper may neglect following up on these due to lack of space or because of belief that the pictures was too specific to a local area, a hyperlocal could develop a unique picture library of their own.
    One example, and a favourite of mine, is Ted Rudge’s website http://www.ted.rudge.btinternet.co.uk/index.htm.
    I think the same applies to campaigning. And from what I’ve seen of local blogs, if not hyperlocals, it is that many of them are already trying to change things (for the greater good of their area), just not as an organised campaign.

    1. Hi Paul. Thanks for the comments. Talk About Local in Birmingham is a great example of empowering people to have a voice (and therefore campaign?) locally, online?

  2. No one seems to be able to articulate the difference between local and “hyperlocal” aside from “hyperlocal” being unpaid people. Buzz words aren’t going to save journalism.

    1. Hi Jack. You’re right – buzzwords won’t save journalism, but then again, is journalism actually in need of saving? People who say that often actually mean that the current form of journalism needs preserving.

      1. Ah, there’s two words you’d better never utter when on a plane (“Hi, Jack!”).

        People who ask whether journalism is in need of saving are rarely among those who have suffered in the carnage of job losses in the past three or four years.

      2. Thanks for the comment. However, I disagree with you. Journalism is now available in more places than ever. Does journalism therefore need saving, or is what needs ‘saving’ actually a model which enables people to earn a living from it?

    2. To me, Hyperlocal means drilling down to the neighborhood level.

      When a recent flood hit Nashville TN – we put up a message board on one of our hyperlocal sites:

      http://www.hobnobfranklin.com/message-board/4-franklin-flood-relief-cottonwood-area

      that allows people in a specific neighborhood, to share and distribute different items and services needed as they recover from the flood.

      As far as content – our biggest item of interest in our hyperlocal sites has been the local events calendar…

      1. Hi Jon, thanks for the comment. Interesting you mention the local events calendar. I was at an event the other week where the editor of a new, free paper put a lot of importance on the ‘what’s on calendar’. Maybe that was the number 11 which was missing!

  3. There are some great tips in here and I’m sure hyperlocal editors can gain a lot from looking at local news organisations which have been going for donkeys years – and yet there’s something in this post which can’t help but make me want to say ‘let’s throw away the rule book and see what works.’

    Tips and advice are definitely invaluable for hyperlocal publishers – especially those with perhaps no journalistic training or experience – and yet some of the best hyperlocal sites I’ve seen are from those with a passion for the place who aren’t trying to simulate a local news organisation. Are hyperlocal sites even trying to gain a wider audience? Or about delivering something vital to a small but captivated audience?

    Finally I would add that tip 7 rather defeats the point of a hyperlocal blog. Editors of hyperlocal sites are often doing it in their own time on a voluntary basis and don’t have the time or resources to give national news coverage. Surely the reason they have started the site in the first place is to offer the most local of news. Linking to stories of interest on other local news sites is a must, but trying to offer some national coverage will no doubt be rather low down on the hyperlocal publisher’s agenda.

    Haven’t seen any hyperlocal sites which campaign? How about The Stirrer and Pits & Pots? I’m sure other commenters can add more.

    Overall some really helpful ideas in here though.

    1. Hi Hannah,

      Thanks for your comments. The post wasn intended to look at principles from the local press which could work for hyperlocal sites, not to say ‘here’s 10 things you must do because you want to simulate the local paper.’ There’s probably a balance to be had between throwing away the rule book altogether and making sure the baby doesn’t go out with the bath water. On point seven, I didn’t suggest sites start providing national news, I suggested that sites could pull in links/feeds from other local source or national sources, not write it from scratch – this would, as you said, be somewhat self-defeating.

      Thanks for the suggestions on hyperlocal campaigns – as I said in the post, I just hadn’t seen them.

  4. Hi David,
    Ten decent points made which are all opportunities for local sites.(Note I am trying not to use the word hyperlocal).

    I think that the essence of the new news model is really down to niche targeting and filling a role that for whatever reason the established local press are no longer doing.Campaigning is a good example but as you point out this tends to be done by sites set up for a specific issue campaign and often forget the principles of balanced journalism.

    I don’t think that either the regional press or the independent sites have got it right yet,the new model for local news has yet to be established,but it probably lies somewhere between the two,providing a recognised information source that focuses on interactivity and communication.

    It is early days or us at Inside the M60 and we are still to an extent experimneting with what works and what doesn’t.

    However the most important thing for the model is making it commercially sustainable.From our point of view having enough resources to cover the area against collecting localised revenue.

    From the regional point of view,its matching a much higher cost base against the need to localise.Again the model,I feel will fall somewhere between the two.

    As you say there is a way to go yet and that way is not just down to content sharing.In my opinion its down to sharing how the actual model will work for both parties.If local sites simply become conduits for the regionals to get stories or the local sites use the regionals for the same purpose then it defeats the object.

    Anyway a good start to the conversation,please keep it going

    Nigel

    1. Hi Nigel,

      Thanks for your comments. I don’t think running campaigns stops you from being fair and balanced in your reporting. I’ve worked on many campaigns, and we always made a point of ensuring the opposing view was put across, as well as making clear what we believed and what we were campaigning for. For example, when Lancashire County Council announced it wanted to close 30 care homes, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph led the campaign against it, tapping into the general outrage at the plans – but for all the council’s complaints about the fact we made it ‘harder’ for them to justify the closures as a result of campaigning, they never complained about us not being fair in our coverage. I guess it’s about knowing your audience.

      A lot is said about the higher cost base in traditional media – that’s true, but they also have access to much greater commercial funding too. In the same way that hyperlocal/local start ups have become possible thanks to developments online, so too it has become easier, in theory, for journalists to be more local while working for large print organisations.

  5. Good points David – sadly can’t agree about No5. The express and star frequently take digs at the far superior Birmingham Mail, especially in sport.
    We readers may not care but i’ve noticed it. And I,m sure others have

    1. Hi Bob. Obviously can’t comment on things I haven’t seen but most newspapers I’ve worked on have warned against taking pot shots at rivals. If readers do notice, I don’t think they’ll think better of the critic for it.

  6. I co-edit the site Blog Preston. One of our best features is the range of guest contributors that we have.

    This not only means that we’re able to call on a few people who have very specialist knowledge, but also makes our community feel like they’re part of the website, and not just passive viewers.

    I think there’s definitely something to be said in favour of that.

      1. Sorry for the late response.

        We have around 10 – 15 contributors, who all do it voluntarily.

        People obviously like writing about things that interest them, so what we’ve tried to do is have some kind of specialised correspondents. That is, if there’s an opinion piece to be written about a local environmental issue, we have a go to guy for green issues, etc.

        I think it can really help make the website feel cohesive with the community that it’s supposed to be serving. We also organise tweetups and bloggers meets, so that people meet offline as well as on!

  7. David, some fine ideas there, I’m sure this list will be of use to folks running hyperlocal sites.

    Can I add an 11th suggestion? Local sport is a great source of regular stories. Local papers obviously tend to focus on the bigger local teams, whether it’s a football league club or the county cricket side. But there’s definitely interest in non-league football, local cricket leagues, etc. Most of these leagues, and some of the teams, have websites which are regularly updated with results and other information, and often both the leagues and the clubs will have forums which can be a source of more rich information as well as possible contributors to your site (match reports, photos, etc).

    Papers will usually cover this sort of thing, but perhaps only on a Wednesday or Thursday because of a lack of space earlier in the week, so there’s no reason why a hyperlocal site couldn’t get that sort of information online on a Sunday or Monday after the matches take place.

    1. Hi Richard, thanks for the comment. Sports an obvious one which I’m kicking myself for not thinking of!

  8. Generally I agree, however, hyperlocal needs to stay local, only cover national or international stories that have a local angle, eg I cover the F1 Force India, they are based locally.
    The real rule of a hyperlocal site, is content, content, content, followed by traffic, more content, more traffic, content and then advertising.
    A weekly newsletter (via email) also replicates the publication date of newspapers and must be adhered to.
    I am convinced that hyperlocal is the way forward, particularly in tandem with Twitter and Facebook.
    See http://www.aboutmyarea.co.uk/nn12

  9. Hi David – I found this a very useful post. Thank you.

    On the Hedon Blog I try to be ‘non-partisan’ on most things, but will campaign when there is a clear community campaign to support.

    A case in point is the town’s fight against a waste burning incinerator proposed to be built on its door step: http://hedonblog.wordpress.com/?s=HOTI I’ve covered the issue since the Blog started 15 months ago.

    I also included a blatant rant on the subject for Blog Action Day last year http://bit.ly/bSksE1 – very unprofessional journalistically I am sure! – but captured the mood of the town’s community activists.

    I suppose the joy and the benefits of hyperlocal websites is that they do not have to conform to any established conventions and can experiment with different styles and approaches.

    1. Hi Ray. Glad it was of interest to you. Just because you thought it was a rant doesn’t make it unprofessional – I’m sure we could both come up with some national newspaper examples which are little more than rants!

  10. I think we think alike. Here’s my version of the perfect mash-up of newspaper and website. We’re just four weeks old, so a couple of your suggestions are in the works but not yet posted (old photos especially popular here). In March we attended a WordPress Camp in Toronto not knowing the difference between and blog and a page. Look at us now: http://www.countylive.ca
    Video at the top is sometimes ‘Best of the Web’ and sometimes done with a cheesy camcorder, but our high-quality video work is always at http://www.youtube.com/user/countylive

    Sue

  11. Hi David,

    Thanks so much for this post! I really like some of the ideas you’ve listed here. I think #2 – campaigns – is especially compelling. There’s definitely a niche in the blogosphere for comprehensive and/or in-depth hyperlocal elections coverage, from larger races all the way down to the PTA board, I think.

    I wanted to let you know that Outside.in has also been gathering tips for local content creators on our blog (http://blog.outside.in). Each week I interview a different local blogger for our ‘Bloggers We Love’ series, then feature them (and what I’ve learned from them) on our blog. Here are a few posts I think you and your readers may find useful:

    – Top 10 Time Management Tips http://bit.ly/ambhZp

    – Tasha’s Top Tips for Bloggers http://bit.ly/bI04Am

    – 12 Steps To Building a Better Blog (or a Delicious Plate of Nachos) http://bit.ly/bqSKGL

    – The Top 15 Things I Learned from Nashvillest http://bit.ly/ajpjr0

    Thanks again for the post. Keep up the good work!

    Best,

    Esther Brown
    Community Manager, Outside.in

    1. Ha! I realize I misunderstood #2 (I read ‘campaigns’ and immediately thought ‘election coverage.’). Can you explain a little more about what you’re suggesting? I’m curious.

      – Esther

      1. Hi Esther
        Thanks for the comments. By campaigns, I mean campaigning on a local issue. For example, if a council wanted to build an incinerator in a village served by a hyperlocal, would the hyperlocal just report the facts or campaign with the community against it?

  12. Hmm, interesting. I guess that would depend upon the hyperlocal website/blogger – whether they see themselves as an independent news source or as more of a community organizer. One example of this would be Jay Sears of MyRye.com. His blog actually started as a way for neighbors to come together to try to get the city of Rye to put a 4-way stop sign in his neighborhood. You can read more about that (and him) here:

    http://blog.outside.in/2010/04/19/bloggers-we-love-jay-sears-2/

    Of course, the blog has evolved past the 4-way stop sign (which they were successful in obtaining), but that’s how it began.

    – Esther

  13. hi david!!
    i am looking for ideas on term hyperlocal.(in terms of social and economical concept) can you give some references?

  14. Excellent advice David. I’m reminded of the converse when I was writing for East London Advertiser 20 or so years ago. I was given the job of writing about local history, and of course immediately pitched ideas about the Krays, Jack the Ripper etc to my hugely experienced editor, who reminded me that I was new, and these areas had been done to death (sorry about that) before I was even born. I still write about East End history and I STILL get friends saying ‘Why don’t you do a piece on Jack the Ripper’. I think it highlights a problem for the experienced local journo though – what is old hat to us may not be to the reader. As I said to my boss ‘But if it was done before our current readers were born, then it’s new to THEM.’ In other words, we can get jaded and pre-edit our ideas to much.
    The answer, of course, is to keep looking for new spins on old stories. Did that platform ever get its roof btw?
    Best regards
    John Rennie, editor of eastlondonhistory.com

    1. Hi john, thanks for the comment. Only just seen it! I couldn’t agree with you more on the local history point. Tell people stuff they don’t know.

      As for the station platform – no, it never happened!

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