#aopforum: The Q&A I did for AOP

I’ve been meaning to blog on my thoughts following on from the AOP session on Microlocal the other week. I still do intend to blog on that, but for now, here’s the Q&A I did for AOP ahead of the session:

How can publishers compete with zero cost base community developed and run sites?

To describe them as zero cost is misleading in many ways, because the best community sites are those which have a lot of time, care and attention invested in them by people who feel they can make a difference with what they do. That’s still a cost – just not one you’d see on a balance sheet.

As for competing with community-developed sites, I think the future lies in finding ways of working with such sites for the benefit of both parties. This could be as simple as linking to each other, or more complex in terms of sharing an advertising network.

Could we share content? There will be sites we have no choice but to compete with, but I see a lot of potential in trying to work with hyperlocal sites going forward.

Are publishers wise to be investing in microlocal at this time?

Regional newspaper publishers have been investing in microlocal for decades. The content our journalists provide is the sort of information which people appreciate about their local areas, and which no-one else provides.

Providing that local information has never been more important now that people can easily sift, sort and choose the local information they need online. The challenge for regional publishers is ensuring that the content we are generating is the content people want.

What kind of local sites are likely to succeed and who do you think will ultimately emerge as owners of this space?

I don’t believe any one organisation or body will ‘own’ the whole space. No one site or publisher will own the space in any one area, either. The local sites which succeed are those which listen to the audience they write/produce content for, and encourage participation.

Every now and again, someone will claim that publishers are only interested in community hyperlocal sites so that they can rip off their content, while occasionally you will hear a traditional journalist suggest all hyperlocal sites and bloggers are ‘Sid Nutters’. Those who continue to push forward with those views, and refuse to work with one another, are those who will fail.

How useful are the many tools and suppliers springing up to support local publishing?

The usefulness of the tools out there depends very much on what the end goal is for the microlocal site, be it a one-community site or a network of microlocal sites, such as Trinity Mirror’s sites in Teesside or Northumberland. If we consider Twitter, Flickr and Facebook to be tools for this, then they are only as good as the person using them.

We have to see social media tools as a way of communicating rather than broadcasting, sharing rather than publishing. Anyone looking to launch such tools needs to make sure the tool they’ve got is worth people getting to know and, above all, works. Flaky tools are soon forgotten.

How do you think the landscape is likely to develop going forward?

More partnerships will emerge in the future, with an emphasis on the partnership being based on what users need, rather than what suits each partner.

For journalists working within mainstream media, I think we’ll see a transparency continue to become a more important part of what we do. Our audience is now more empowered to ask questions of what we do and why we do it, and we should welcome that. It’s the best way to be connected to the communities we seek to serve.

What do you think it takes for publishers to succeed in this area?

Publishers need to look at the content they produce – still primarily for print – and ask themselves what else they need to produce to make their content desirable for an online audience seeking local information.

The notion that people no longer care about local news online is wrong. Across the UK, newspapers see huge spikes when big stories break, even in the face of stiff competition from national players such as Sky and the BBC and regional newspapers enjoy large audiences online, but shouldn’t take them for granted.

Working with hyperlocal start-ups, regional publishers should be well-placed for the future, but shouldn’t lose sight of their USP: strong, local content which the audience can trust. Any website can add 10,000 page impressions instantly by republishing football transfer rumours, but the real reward will go to those publishers which listens to the audience, and involves the audience, in the future.

What do you see as the main threats to publisher success?

A refusal to change. Publishers have always prided themselves on knowing the community they serve, and in the past that just meant telling the community what it wanted/needed to hear. Now we are just one voice in a vocal community, and we have to ensure that those voices are represented in what we do, listened to as we go about our work, and embraced when they challenge us.

If we continue to see ourselves as publishers and broadcasters to a community, rather than an active part in a community, then we’ll be pushed to the sidelines.


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