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Northcliffe hyperlocal sites ‘flawed’ claim academics

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However Northcliffe has hit back claiming that the research is out-of-date as it was conducted in January 2010 when most of the Local People sites were just a few months old.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/

21 comments

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  • September 14, 2011 at 8:32 am
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    Northcliffe’s Local People sites are truly abysmal. I’ve looked at several now and can’t believe their amateurishness and clunking digital architecture.

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  • September 14, 2011 at 8:56 am
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    Great to see academics spending two years to produce a piece of outdated research. Must be a nice life! Reminds me of Greenslade criticising local newspapers’ coverage of the London riots. Easy to snipe from the sidelines

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  • September 14, 2011 at 8:59 am
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    Yep, whoever thought them up should be ashamed of themselves. UGC is a great theory but that’s all it is – in reality, only a few people can be bothered to contribute to something which gives them nothing back for their efforts and is a (in theory) money-making exercise for someone else. And there are millions of sites out there that are ‘community of interest’ sites, which are bound to be frequented by the like-minded who share your passion. I remember being lectured by my Northcliffe boss years ago about how local life is. No it isn’t! It also looks lazy and old-fashioned. And other community websites are doing a far better job. No, sorry Northcliffe, they’re absolutely shocking.

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  • September 14, 2011 at 9:36 am
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    Nice to have a bunch of academics confirm what was already patently obvious to those of out in the shires as we toil away contributing 95% of Northcliffe’s profits by working on those nasty ink-on-paper “old media” products.
    The Local People sites bet the farm on monetising UGC and breaking new geographic markets but have had a ‘King’s New Clothes’ element about them from day one….it’s just that because they were the latest sexy digital wheeze no-one felt able to point out we were already doing this in spades on our papers and ‘this is’ sites. Those of us who are long enough in the tooth to have seen two or three previous ‘iterations’ (as I believe one is meant to call it these days) in policy have been relaxed enough to know the Local People sites are doomed to failure in the way they have been set up and we await the penny dropping somewhere on high and responsibility for engaging digitally with our communities rolling back to us.

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  • September 14, 2011 at 9:37 am
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    Newspaper executives talk the talk about ‘hyper local’ sites.
    Most of them wouldn’t know a hyper local item or issue if it bit them on the posterior
    In the main, these sites attract the anonymous loudmouths

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  • September 14, 2011 at 9:39 am
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    Large groups like Northcliffe will never operate this type of business successfully. The winners will always be the entrepreneurs with no corporate shackles or traditional revenue streams to protect. Regional press lost the classified market for the same reasons.

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  • September 14, 2011 at 9:44 am
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    They are flawed and form no part of local community life. Whilst you may get the occasional community member with something to shout about, they are totally non-engaging. The SMT at northcliffe digital aren’t prepared to accept it clearly. From a commercial perspective they offer no value to local sme’s and certainly no ROI. It seems efforts at h/o are more about making Wowcher a success, another sibling destined for failure. Referring to UGC from an earlier post, it’s not a myth and will certainly help sites evolve and engage their audience, but it’s got to be done the right way and with sufficient promotion. Amen!

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  • September 14, 2011 at 10:05 am
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    Given the appalling new ‘thisis’ templates and the hysterical Local People series, I have come to the conclusion that nobody at Northcliffe has ever actually seen the internet.

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  • September 14, 2011 at 10:42 am
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    They could be great sites – if Northcliffe invested any money in the sites themselves and promoting them to the community. They ware also in serious need of a redesign. The front pages are very univiting and confusing.

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  • September 14, 2011 at 10:43 am
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    Yes, they look clunky and desperately need an overhall but… John St Renegade, 95% of almost sweet FA and shrinking rapidly is, unfortunately, the future of print, whereas 5% and growing steadily is a more attractive prospect in the long-run. Old Timer, yes, many independently-run sites already do it better, but they do it for free. This is why most of them do well for a year or two, then disappear. People’s lives change and they move on. At least Northcliffe is trying to find a method of monetising it and keeping some journalists in steady jobs somewhere. Who else is taking people on at the minute? It’s easy to knock a concept in it relative infancy, but no-one else is trying anything different in the regional news market. Everywhere else in print, it’s all about cuts, cuts, cuts. The only real cynics are those being axed from the print arms which, with or without the internet, will be slowly killed anyway due to the immediacy of those independent hyperlocal sites… and, of course, social media. The most important thing for journalists to realise, it that EVERYONE is now a journalist. Everyone has the tools and to spread their opinions worldwide in a matter of seconds and journalists are no longer the sole purveyors of quality, trusted news. Yes, there is endless of BS, hearsay and legally problematic content on social media sites but, in the end, we all listen to and follow the people we trust the most – and that’s not always traditional journalists. If Northcliffe can find a way to monetise even a fraction of that massive market, then great. If not, regional news in traditional print form certainly has an ever-nearing shelf-life anyway. Sad, I know, but true!

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  • September 14, 2011 at 10:52 am
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    If the websites are as abysmal as the printed ludicrously-titled “people.co.uk” publications, then it’s not surprising they’re not getting the “hits” which were so confidently predicted. More than 150 years of tradition and service to the community were thrown away in Clevedon when Northcliffe closed its offce there (from which four good quality local newspapers were produced) and got rid of most of the staff. The rubbish “people.co.uk” publication which has replaced the Mercury (RIP) is poorly written, badly subbed and full of errors both grammatical and of the sort made by people with n o real knowledge of the area. Luckily we have another newspaper in the area – the North Somerset Times – which is slowly taking on the mantle so callously discarded by Northcliffe. It’s not yet quite as good as the old Mercury, but it’s getting there, and scooping Northcliffe’s rag week after week.

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  • September 14, 2011 at 11:48 am
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    Oliver….don’t believe the hype on the profitability of most regional papers. I am looking at a weekly P&L sheet in my business which most local businesses would kill for. Yes, revenues are down from the halcyon days of the 80s and 90s when the entire media landscape was different, but we are still a good, solid, local business which understands the make-up of its marketplace far better than anyone else. And that means Google right down to the man in the back bedroom doing community publishing which may well be ‘hyper local’ but has little of the brand value or commercial engine behind it which we do. Of course we need to innnovate and experiment with new forms of media, but we should be doing that by building on our existing high quality local brands, not forcing new players on an unwilling market.

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  • September 14, 2011 at 12:29 pm
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    Being optimistic or pessimistic doesn’t alter the fact that under-30s are not (in general, so don’t bite) bought up to buy and read newspapers. Therefore the quality local brands, as they are described above, have little relevance to this and future generations. Organisations like Northcliffe et al have to realise that what they consider to be a solid brand is only solid brand if people are aware of it and buy into it. That just isn’t happening any more. A fresh approach is needed online, individual sites aimed at individual communities, standalone sites. Get away from the old models, look at the really successful news sites (multi-national, national and local) out there and learn from them. Don’t ignore them or poo-poo them because they are potential rivals. Be a bit more anarchic, a bit more frivolous, more fun. I doubt there’s much money to be made either way, but you can bet your bottom dollar that these current sites aren’t going to replace lost income from print as it is. These sites will have to be manned by small amounts of people, doing the job for the love of it and for little wages. The Northcliffe model can’t work.

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  • September 14, 2011 at 12:39 pm
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    The Northcliffe hyperlocal sites are truly abysmal. They suffer awful design, unvetted amateur ‘content’ and a lack of any coherent link to trusted newspaper titles.

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  • September 14, 2011 at 1:17 pm
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    John St Renegade, I agree that the papers are still very profitable… for now. But all regional publishing companies, not just Northcliffe, will turn more dailies weekly, make more weeklies free and axe their poorer-performing frees, in a bid to maximise profits. Maybe in a dillusional bid to return to the profits of the ‘halcyon days’ you mention. They will probably go through this cycle repeatedly until a web-first publishing model is the only option left. Maybe Northcliffe’s digital division will eventually absorb the print titles. It would mean being able to axe even more traditional reporters as many pages of a 160-page free weekly could be filled by much of the content that has already been published on the hyperlocal websites. Hang on… don’t they already do this with three titles around Bristol already? And, North Somerset ex-staffer, much of the content on these hyperlocal is no more ‘poorly written’ than the pages and pages of parish pump content that the so-called ‘community-focused’ newspapers have printed directly from its freelancers for years. Do you really think that people still refuse to buy the paper because a reporter fails to use an apostrophe correctly or doesn’t know the difference between ‘there’ and ‘their’? Social media sites are littered with poorly written, grammatically incorrect and legally problematic articles, yet they have exploded onto the publishing scene in the last few years and are now used by a rapidly growing number of people as their main source of news. The art of subbing has evolved. It’s now about telling a story in 140 characters or less and we can all do it. Some people may choose to use ‘text speak’, but so what? If it tells the story or leads us to what we want to find out, it has served its purpose perfectly. As I said before, if Northcliffe’s ‘hyperlocal’ site can even monetise a fraction of this social media phenomenon, then it’ll be profitable eventually. If not, you can’t say they didn’t try.

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  • September 14, 2011 at 1:54 pm
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    And, I’m disappointed that no-one bit on ‘overhall’!

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  • September 14, 2011 at 2:52 pm
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    Oliver says: “The most important thing for journalists to realise, it that EVERYONE is now a journalist. Everyone has the tools and to spread their opinions worldwide in a matter of seconds and journalists are no longer the sole purveyors of quality, trusted news. Yes, there is endless of BS, hearsay and legally problematic content on social media sites but, in the end, we all listen to and follow the people we trust the most – and that’s not always traditional journalists.”

    The thing to remember is that 99 per cent of ‘citizen journalism ‘ is rubbish and so will never widely seen as ‘quality’ or ‘trusted.’ Traditional print needs to keep its self-confidence. There is plenty of life in it yet. Just look at the readerships: declining steadily, I know, but still substantial and likely to remain so for several decades (think of the ‘grey ‘readership). Proponents of digital media forget that most people over 30 don’t give a stuff about being ‘connected’ – they have lives to lead.

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  • September 14, 2011 at 3:16 pm
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    I’m over 30 and don’t buy a newspaper any more. Don’t need to. And don’t need to have an opinion of one man (the editor) shoved down my throat. From the Daily Mail downwards, I’m sick of having a political or moral opinion thrust upon me. The web is more anarchic, a lot sillier, a LOT more fun and, by being careful, I reckon I get a wider and better view of the world than by reading a newspaper. I read books, so I am happy to read, just can’t be bothered any more with print media and media companies. I would reckon a lot of people are like me and want to be entertained rather than just informed. Nothing Northcliffe or other media groups in my area (the truly dreadful MEN set of papers and websites in my case) are doing is entertaining, as these ‘local’ websites prove. Look at Beverleylocal, and then compare it to hu17.net. No comparison!!!

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  • September 15, 2011 at 9:09 am
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    You’ve got to love community sites that launch without discussion with existing community and miss out on existing expertise. Another Northcliffe masterstroke

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  • September 15, 2011 at 1:43 pm
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    I’ve read the report and find it quite flawed in itself. It sampled a tiny proportion of the sites and publishers in an early stage of their setup and development. It makes some good points but they are few and far between.

    Anyone that has worked in web knows that you can’t build a community or a network of contacts for your website overnight and unless publishers are prepared to accept that this is true and they stick to their guns they will never manage to build a network of local sites.

    Even major web publishers like Google (remember Buzz anyone?) have come unstuck.

    In fact my criticism would be that website owners are too eager to rip up their web communities after five minutes, rather than nurturing them the way they should.

    It also makes the assumption that local websites should have a high politics content and whilst that some hyperlocal websites which have excellent campaigners behind them or working for them it doesn’t have to mean that a politics lite site is a bad one.

    I for one would rather read a site that had interesting news, sport and music content than one that had snoozeworthy minutes of every local town council meeting.

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  • September 15, 2011 at 2:54 pm
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    @Dave – well said and quite right. It is flawed as a study but so many things are aren’t they? Based on the speed at which things change online who would really use information so old? That makes no sense especially when you consider just how quickly some sites and pages can go from 0 to a million users/followers in hours or days.
    So many people are quick to criticise others large and small. Ultimately the world wide web actually serves local people looking for local information best and local community websites are key to this. In reality a large organisation creating this is the only way its likely to develop enough to make it worthwhile for anyone to get involved in operating a local site. So many single stand alone operators are struggling to make any money doing it that they rarely last that long, it becomes too big a ‘hobby’ to do for free and yet remains too small and unsupported to make a living at. Someone will get it right whether its Northcliffe, Google or someone else as long as its local people providing the local content it’ll work and the big companies have the money to take the time getting it right and building it up.

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