Learning from hyperlocals to make sure the news still matters

10-rules-for-increasing-community-engagement-62a426a5f8

How do you define success as a local journalist these days? Number of front pages? Number of page views online? A sense of job well done at the end of the week?

All of the above make sense in the here-and-now, an instant sign of job well done. But to find the key to a sustainable future, future, maybe journalists need to look at things a little different.

Big numbers against digital audiences are great, and very important. We saw that in this week’s half-yearly release of the ABCes in the UK for the regional press. But uniques and page views only tell part of the story, and they don’t tell the really important bit: What people think of you.

So to define success, you need to define how you want people to think of you. Most people want to be liked, but that’s probably not a great place for a news organisation to start. Being able to prove that you are trusted, seen as reliable, and seen as useful and entertaining are probably the goals we should be aiming for.

Audience metrics allow us to see this, and newsrooms I work with increasingly focus on pages per visit, visits per user, time spent on site, increase in ‘brand visits’ – people visiting directly or via searches based on the brand name –  and volume of organic shares on social media. For organisations which can offer metrics to support newsrooms in monitoring this – think BuzzSumo, or Chartbeat – now is a very good time to be in business.

So that’s the why, but what about the how? This is where journalists should probably be paying attention to hyperlocal websites, or rather the good hyperlocal websites.

As with every sector in the media, the hyperlocal sector has good and not so good. The sites which I want to write about here are the ones which by instinct put audience engagement at the heart of what they do. Often, it’s their reason for being. And because many of the sites cover relatively small areas, their focus is rightly on engaging as many people as possible in that area.

Those are the good hyperlocal sites. They are probably the ‘real’ hyperlocal sites. For me, a hyperlocal site is more about engaging with a smaller group of people than it is covering a smaller area. As with ‘big media,’ the only hyperlocal sites which will survive will be those which build an engaged audience.

That’s why I thought this quote from Josh Stearns, one of the brains behind America’s Local News Lab, was so relevant to journalists on this side of the pond. In discussing the 18-month update on the work of the News Lab with a variety of community journalism projects, he said:

You need to build community around your work from the very start. Invest in your community and they will invest in you.

He’s right – and the Local News Lab report 18 months on is well worth a read – and that’s something people behind hyperlocal websites often get more quickly than those of us working in larger organisations. A hyperlocal site built from scratch will always have the benefit of being closer to the community, because it’s probably been born out of a perceived community need, in the same way newspapers once were … 150 years ago.

For journalists working in the mainstream media, it’s no longer enough just to write news. Nor is it enough to just pay attention to metrics. Journalists need to engage with an audience and build relationships within that audience. ‘Digital’ tools make it easy to gather news, they also should make it easier to build relationships – but those relationships need to carry through into readers’ real worlds too.

Gannett, the giant US publisher which also owns Newsquest in the UK, ran a project called Picasso a couple of years ago. One of its principles was described as follows:

Every journalist must explain the value and impact of the journalism we do, so that current subscribers will stay with us and new ones will join. This isn’t simply about promoting oneself; rather, it’s about proving your expertise, connecting your colleagues’ work to your followers’ interests and placing all the journalism from your newsroom in an overall context of our unique product that’s worth readers’ investment.

Proving your worth to a community is something journalists need to do more than ever, because we need to convince communities which no longer see a bundle of local news delivered daily or weekly through their door as essential to their lives. They now pick and choose their news, and we need them to pick and choose us over, say, 10 more minutes on Facebook.

Our chances of setting the new agenda, and getting readers to spend time reading something they otherwise wouldn’t have sought are both enhanced if journalists have strong relationships with readers.

This is best crystalised in the debate about whether a focus on audience metrics will result in the demise of ‘public service journalism.’ That is a claim the NUJ have repeatedly made – and it’s one which demonstrates more than anything a lack of of understanding about how audience metrics can be used sensibly.

Public service journalism – council, courts and so on – is best served when we don’t just decree that it’s important, but we set out to convince the audience is important.

Franklin Tucker runs a hyperlocal site in Belmont, Boston, called the Belmontonian. He works a 21-hour day, overnight as a security guard and then through the day running his news site. His is perhaps an extreme example of how people want to make hyperlocal work.

He talked in a Columbia Journalism Review article about why he spent his time writing articles about issues such as the tender for the council’s rubbish services – the sort of content we’d see as ‘important’ but perhaps not popular.

At 11am, after three hours’ sleep, Tucker will launch into the day’s tasks. On the agenda is completing last week’s story on the town’s new trash contract (“That’s not the sexiest thing,” he says, “but the town deserves to know”)

I love that view of ‘important’ journalism. It’s not just important, it’s not just about doing it because we always have and because we’re journalists, it’s about doing it because the readers deserve to hear about it.

And as his, and many other, hyperlocal news sites are demonstrating, readers are far more likely to learn about what they deserve to know about if it’s coming from journalists they know and trust, and journalists who invest time in building an audience around their work.

Journalism can indeed be judged a success in many different ways, but ending a week with more readers engaging with you than were doing so at the start of the week, is now perhaps the most important signal of success we have.

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