A network of hyperlocal websites rolled out by a regional newspaper publisher in 2009 is failing to meet its initial targets, a group of journalism lecturers has claimed.
Academics from City University London have published a new report on hyperlocal news entitled ‘Can Big Media do Big Society,’ using Northcliffe’s Local People sites as a case study.
The report’s co- authors Neil Thurman and Paul Bradshaw said the sites suffered from “some important flaws” and are “well behind independent equivalents in terms of engagement with users.”
However Northcliffe has hit back claiming that the research is out-of-date as it was conducted in January 2010 when most of the Local People sites were just a few months old.
In their report the academics listed six specific criticisms of the Local People sites, including failing to meet their initial target of getting 75pc of the local online population using them, with penetration averaging just 8pc.
They also found that:
- About three-quarters of the stories were written by the community publisher employed on each site rather than by local people.
- Story comments and follow-ups to discussion posts were also infrequent, with most stories not generating a single comment or reply.
- Only a small number of stories or discussions concerned local politics, for example just 7pc on ‘Dorchester People’. In contrast ‘Entertainment’ and ‘Sport’ accounted for 53pc of all stories.
- Practical information on topics such as ‘Amenities’, ‘Social Services’, and ‘Security and Safety’ were popular but not well-catered for by the sites’ structure.
- The sites had failed in their initial aim to be the “local version of Facebook”. The researchers found the average registered user had less than one ‘friend’, with over 90pc of registered users having no ‘friends’ at all.
The report said: “While the Government has stated that a revival in local journalism should be led by the ‘existing media sector,’ the evidence presented in this paper suggests that the hyperlocal publishing efforts of at least one of the UK’s major regional publishers suffer from some important flaws and are well behind independent equivalents in terms of engagement with users.”
It argues that independently-run hyperlocal websites are better at holding local politicians to account than what it terms ‘Big Media,’ and also questions the government’s strategy of encouraging the growth of local TV.
Journalism lecturer Neil Thurman said: “Successful hyperlocal media is often issue-focused, dynamic, personal, informal and low-tech. These are qualities the web does far better than TV.
“What’s more, we found that the established commercial local media provider we studied wasn’t enabling community participation or meeting audience interests as well as many independent hyperlocal bloggers have done.”
In response, Northcliffe Digital general manager Lee Williams said since the study was carried out the sites had grown by 419pc and now delivered 799,930 unique visitors per month in comparison to 186,261 unique visitors when the research was completed.
The company claims that in August alone it had over 26,000 contributions to the Local People network of sites, of which over 40pc came from the users.
Said Lee: “We welcome any analysis into hyperlocal publishing, a subject we care passionately about. We would make a number of observations regarding the data pulled together by City University.
“The City research is based on January 2010 data, some 18 months ago when the sites were only a few months old and unfortunately does not recognise the significant growth of Local People since that time.
“With over 799k unique visitors in August, we delivered an approximate penetration of 35pc of households in our catchments, with some locations such as Cleethorpes, Helston and Islington achieving 50pc plus.
“In August alone we had over 26,000 contributions to the LocalPeople network of sites, of which over 40pc came from the users of the site.
“In comparison to the period in which this research was completed we have now grown user contributions by over 200pc.
“We are seeing this volume grow as our user base increasingly trusts and sees value in posting onto their local site.
“We note with interest the importance placed on politics content by the research. We certainly recognise the important of political and social issues on the site but our sites were never set-up to be political blogs or drive the local political news agenda.
“As you’d expect we regularly analyse the content usage of our sites. Key drivers of interest and usage are ‘what’s on in the area’ and local sports content, hence the volume of material that relates to these content areas.’”
Neil Thurman confirmed that the initial research was carried out in January 2010, but said they had conducted further research in June 2011 on the user penetration of the sites.
He said that although they found the numbers had grown from 2.37pc to 7.7pc, they were still far below the 75pc that Northcliffe had hoped for.
- The full report: “Can Big Media do ‘Big Society’? A critical case study of commercial, convergent hyperlocal news”, which was co-written with Jean-Christophe Pascal, is available here: http://openaccess.city.ac.uk/135/