Should independent hyperlocal news operations expect ‘cashback’ from mainstream publishers who use their copy?
It’s one of the questions I’m keen to answer in my ongoing search for a sustainable way forward for my fledgling community news operation in north Worcestershire, Wyre Life.
First to help me explore the possibilities is Marc Reeves, editor of Birmingham Live, Birmingham Mail, Birmingham Post and Sunday Mercury.
We meet up for a chat in the Birmingham Live centre of operations in Church Street, eight floors up in the heart of the city.
Over a welcome cold drink, the city still baking from the summer heatwave, we talk all things hyperlocal and community.
“I’ve had a bit of a love hate relationship with hyperlocals over the years,” explains Marc.
“I started out loving them and then they started hating what we did,” he reflects with a smile.
The city’s activists, writers and freelance journalists were early adopters of the hyperlocal model.
By 2013 there were around 30 recognised hyperlocals across Birmingham. Some were borne out of a desire to raise awareness of a specific issue; others were created to replace a reduced news service offered by ailing traditional publishers; others out of a positive desire to share people’s stories and promote an area. All were either local to a geographical area, or focussed on a community of interest.
There’s also Birmingham Updates, a city-wide news service which has blossomed into a genuine commercial force, reaching half a million people across social media channels.
Reeves, inspired by his then trainee reporter Joanne Geary (who’s since gone on to become director of curation for Twitter), recognised that there could be benefits to working with this new wave of content distributors.
Attempts were made on both sides to develop relationships between “the big bad mainstream media” and some of the hyperlocals, but ultimately they foundered.
“I think they failed because we didn’t understand each other and there were quite a lot of suspicions at work, and grudges seemed to be held for a long time.
“There was also a lot of arrogance from mainstream media – we saw our newsrooms as the priesthood of journalism, and acted as if our journalists are some sort of gods of communication, which of course they aren’t. Mainstream journalists were looking down their noses at hyperlocals, when in reality what some of them do is awesome stuff, better than what we did and still do in some cases.”
He adds: “We were also just starting on our own digital journey so were juggling print and digital while also trying to juggle relationships with these people we didn’t quite understand, so it didn’t really come together.”
In the intervening years, Reeves has championed the idea of local media of all shapes and sizes working together to serve communities.
Benevolent godfather of the hyperlocal scene?
But any chances of Birmingham Live becoming some kind of benevolent godfather to hyperlocals out of a moral obligation, or the organisation handing over cash to pay for previously published content, are given short shrift.
“I am definitely open to the idea of working together. That might involve exchanging resources, sharing information and expertise, working together on stories or campaigns – I can see merit in that type of holistic approach, one in which we are spreading our wings a bit more into the edges around Birmingham.
“It would be great for campaigns like BrumFeeds (Birmingham Live’s much applauded ongoing campaign to collect food donations and cash for homeless and vulnerable people) to be shared across as many media as possible.
“We could pre-arrange joint coverage, have collection points in outlying communities where hyperlocals operate, and so on.”
“But we are massively constrained financially. So if I wanted to, say, pay a hyperlocal or group of hyperlocals to provide copy to us, am I going to sack a reporter to do so? I can’t see that happening.”
“In reality, most content that’s specific to a small geographical area is worth pennies financially. A million page views equates to around £5,000 revenue, so if we decide to work with a hyperlocal and tag all their stories on our site, these might rack up 75,000 page views in a month – that doesn’t amount to a lot of money to share.”
Another idea to explore could be brand association – Birmingham Live could, for example, team up with a group of community-focussed hyperlocals and go to advertisers as a joint enterprise, he muses.
“But I have to be honest here – I’m looking for minimal effort for maximum return in terms of page views and reader attention. Developing relationships takes time and investment, proper collaboration and communication.
“I have made the mistake before of treating hyperlocals as one entity but they are all different. So for each hyperlocal I would need to manage a different relationship, which can be very complex. It’s just difficult to see how that would work efficiently, unless there is a single point of contact.”
He added: “I don’t get the idea that we should seek permission or make payments to pursue a story published by a hyperlocal. Once it’s in the public domain it’s out there, isn’t it? Expecting other publishers to ignore a story because Wyre Life, or whoever, has done it first, or to pay to carry the story once it’s been published is, I think, unrealistic.
“My reporters dig out stories all the time that are picked up by (an agency) and sold on without us or them benefiting.”
I point out that in that scenario all the players involved get paid – the reporter, photographer and editor of the regional news story, the agency reporter who picks it up and sells it on, and the national publisher that runs it all benefit.
By contrast, when a story is lifted from a hyperlocal that took hours, or even days, to put together, it can be at best demoralising to see it under someone else’s byline and, at worst, deeply frustrating to see other people enjoying a payday from your endeavours.
Giving value to community news
The time will come, I say, when hyperlocal editors might reasonably expect payment for copy reused by other, profitable publishers. Indeed, that’s one of the ambitions of a new project Value the News, which has just won significant Google funding to develop a way of copyrighting and then tracking stories first created by hyperlocals.
How would he react if, for example, an invoice landed on his desk for reusing stories from a hyperlocal?
“I think if that happened, and it was made a cause celebre – well, we probably just wouldn’t use copy from that source in future.”
But Reeves also applauds attempts for the sector to be become more sustainable.
He asks hyperlocal editors to consider: “If what you are doing is not economically sustainable, then what, or who, is your hyperlocal newspaper or community news operation for?
“I stood up at a media conference in Birmingham a few years ago and said ‘I think hyperlocals have done some awesome stuff but if you are not sustainable you are fundamentally betraying your readers – you are establishing a service of real value to very specific communities and doing it stunningly well, yet as soon as you get a new job, or have to move, or get worn down by it, or something goes wrong, you walk away. I think that’s a major betrayal.’
“If you are really doing this for the people you serve, your readers, then you have to work out how to keep it going and how to make it pay.”
It’s a drumbeat Reeves has thumped out, in a different context, in a blog post last month. In response to a critical BBC piece sounding the death knell (again) for regional journalism, Reeves added:
“Alternative funding models are at best small-scale and relatively unproven, and public ownership or subsidy is a gateway drug to state control, which should terrify anyone who truly believes in the independence of the press. Another alternative — billionaires using newspapers as playthings — is even more frightening. The regional press doesn’t need another Murdoch, Maxwell or a Mosley. So let me say it: “Running regional media for profit is a Good Thing.”
This mantra extends, it seems, to community journalism.
“But funding for hyperlocals is not going to come from the likes of the Birmingham Mail,” he adds.
So what would Reeves do if he had a part to play in carving out a sustainable future for hyperlocals?
“I think there is a compelling story to be told – here’s my hyperlocal, say Wyre Life, that reaches 5,000 to 10,000 people a week, the audience share a history and a community, and my website is the glue that holds them together.
“You then pull the hyperlocals together through a unified platform that they could all use as a template, with an ad delivery network at its root…that could be a way forward.”
About the author: Jane Haynes is a former regional press journalist, who trained with the Midland News Association and worked on newsdesks at the South Wales Evening Post and Nottingham Post before switching into public sector PR. She is now working as a freelance and studying for a Master’s in multiplatform and mobile journalism at Birmingham City University, which has inspired her to set up a web-only hyperlocal in her own community in north Worcestershire at http://www.wyrelife.co.uk