Polling Alone – a case study in hyperlocal sustainability

By Matt Abbott | 18th Nov 2016

It’s easy to get caught up chasing and writing a story.

As journalists the thrill of a scoop courses through our veins like ink through a rotary printing press.

Getting the right quotes and images with the appropriate permissions, standing it up, getting it to print online, giving yourself the obligatory pat on the back, then starting over; it’s easy to forget someone’s going to read it when you’re done.

But for community publishers, knowing what readers think is just as important as knowing who to contact at the council for a quote.

Website and social analytics are an essential tool in the community publisher’s toolbox, but they can be misleading. And they don’t always answer the questions that keep you up at night: am I doing a good job? Do you mind if we start placing ads? Would you consider paying for content? Where else do you get your news (and how dare you!)?

So occasionally, it helps to ask these questions directly.

That’s exactly what John Baron, founder of the West Leeds Dispatch (WLD), did recently.

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But what John found wasn’t just a profile of his own readers’ opinions. Instead, he unwittingly stumbled upon a snapshot of the industry as a whole.

After the recent publication of the Nesta report into Hyperlocal Revenues in the UK and Europe John decided to find out for himself what models were available to the WLD and whether the publication could stay sustainable.

His readers were adamant they wanted The Dispatch to continue. 95.2% of respondents said they ‘really enjoyed reading’ it and that it was the ‘best source of news for what was going on in the community’.

The content on the site was rated 7.8 out of 10, and 85% of respondents said they visited The Dispatch once a day or a few times a week.

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According to a report into public perceptions of UK national news brands, by Ipsos MORI (Feb 2014), the Sun scored 3.5 (35%) for impartiality and 3.7 (37%) for trust.

At the top of that list was the BBC, who scored the most of the 25 media organisations surveyed. But at 6.5 and 7.4 respectively, not even that bastion of neutrality could top John’s approval ratings.

It’s worthwhile pointing out here that John only received 52 responses over the three days the survey was active, compared with the 1,864 adults surveyed by Ipsos.

But when The Dispatch’s page impressions hover around 50K per month, and his Twitter following is 1600, it’s arguably a fair and accurate litmus test of his audience.

So it would be safe to say that John could afford to be a little cheeky and ask his readers for a few quid to help him out, right? After all, he is doing it free.

Sadly not. The Dispatch’s readers weren’t quite as generous when asked if they’d consider paying for it, with 44% of people surveyed saying they weren’t willing to contribute anything.

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John said: ‘There was a lot of resistance to making a monthly voluntary contribution to help us offset costs.

‘It looks like people want their news for free (or they don’t value it enough to want to pay). And therein lies the problem facing the media industry as a whole …’

Digital freegans

John set up the hyperlocal Yorkshire paper, The West Leeds Dispatch, 18 months ago, after being involved in the hyperlocal sector for a number of years.

‘I was around when the first Talk About Local unconference came about in 2009 and there was a real momentum behind it.

‘There still is, but it’s clear the sector isn’t as robust as we all thought back then. It’s susceptible to the same crises affecting traditional media models, but less financially-equipped to deal with them.’

John admits he spends 25 hours a week on The Dispatch, in his ‘spare time’ between giving lectures and spending time with his family.

He says: ‘I love doing it, but as much as I do, in it’s present form it’s simply not sustainable.

‘That was the purpose of the survey, to see if I could offset the costs that are currently coming out of my own pocket. Even if it was just £25 a month. A small revenue stream is better than none at all.

‘We hoped people would appreciate what we did and give a few quid a month. It turned out there was not as much support as we thought.’

But what of the 34% who offered to pay two pounds?

To answer that John admits the data is slightly flawed.

‘It was the least answered question on the survey,’ he says. ‘In fact, most people just skipped it.

‘It’s a depressing but interesting snap shot of the industry, and is archetypal of the issues many of us are facing.’

John’s not surprised by the results.

And why should he be? People simply don’t want to pay for content anymore. We’ve become a generation of digital freegans. And not exclusively digital either.

Take the Evening Standard for instance. In 2009 it was a paid for print daily with a circulation of 250,000. Today, it is a freesheet with a circulation of 900,000. It was hailed for ‘going free’, ‘maintaining editorial quality’ and ‘upping ad revenue’ and won countless awards.

That being said, the Standard is synonymous with London. Its near ubiquity, like pollen spores and mosquitoes in August, has advertisers clamouring for page space.

The notion of ‘free’ is the default setting in the hyperlocal operating system. In part this is because many independent publishers, like John, are one-man bands. They do everything from sourcing the content, to writing it, getting the pictures, subbing the words, laying it out, publishing it, whether online or in print, and then distributing it.

The Dispatch relies on volunteers to supply some content, but it can’t expect volunteers to canvas for ads. Nor can it afford to pay a sales person to go business-to-business.

So while almost 93% of people surveyed by John said they would be OK with The Dispatch accepting advertising, it leaves him with a conundrum – who will sell advertising each month and how can he pay them?

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He says: ‘It needs someone to design the ads and get them up there. If we’re placing an advertorial, we need to get out there and produce that content.

‘It’s incredibly resource intensive and rife with challenges, not least the advent of ad blockers.’

Interestingly, 34.6% approved of ads but only if they were local. But with local independent businesses increasingly using Facebook as a free platform to get their messages across, persuading them to part with their cash is no easy feat.

And the reason they’re eschewing traditional media outlets, like the WLD, correlates directly with where people get their news from.

Seventy three per cent of respondents told John they get their news from social media.

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Fake or not, more and more people are congregating in filter bubbles and comfort cocoons. Facebook algorithms record activity and reward users with similar content and recommendations they think they’ll like and approve of. In short, people only see what they want to see.

Because of this, although not exclusively, people stay on Facebook because it feels comfortable, safe, familiar. The consequence of this is that indie publishers are forced into this ecosystem, and it doesn’t pay. At all.

John says: ‘I’ve never struggled to keep up with the Yorkshire Evening Post (Yorkshire’s biggest daily) or mainstream media. I can beat them alarmingly easily in terms of content and quality and being first to a story simply because I’m close to the community.

‘But what struck me recently was how many stories I was getting from social media.

‘It seemed to me that the traditional stuff local media used to do was in the remit of groups online in terms of Facebook. And actually a lot of what I was doing was taking those stories.

‘I’m not telling people anything new here, it’s all there on Facebook. I’m just repurposing that content. I admit, I’m guilty of that.

‘But hyperlocals are being left behind because they can’t keep up with social media – with the speed with which it’s happening.’

However, John notices a major problem with the kind of stories being produced.

He says: ‘In in terms of looking at the full breadth of stories, there’s very little in terms of council meetings, local NHS trust decisions etc, – the bread and butter of hyperlocals like The Dispatch.

‘There’s a lot of gossip, a lot of noise, but very little substance.’

It all weighs very heavily on his shoulders.

‘The aim of the WLD when I started it was to encourage people to participate in their local communities more, whether by joining local clubs, or organisations or just being better connected by having the right information to hold their representatives to account.

‘If I jacked it in tomorrow and said goodbye, well, there’s big part of me that just wouldn’t be able to do it.

‘There’s a huge publication there for the people who not only consume the product but for the people who’ve taken part in making it what it is today.’

As the Nesta report points out, advertising isn’t the only revenue stream available to hyperlocal and independent publishers.

Publishers like the Bristol Cable and the Ferret have seen huge success with a cooperative membership model. But both titles have been cooperatives since their conception. Publications like John’s may struggle to attract members simply because his readers feel they don’t need to pay in order to get the same quality and quantity of content. Crowdfunding faces similar obstacles.

John says: ‘Hyperlocal used to mean community. Now, it seems the sector has become the haunt of entrepreneurial ex-journalists who are gradually changing the landscape.

‘Many people are talking about solutions, but they’re the same solutions people were talking about in 2009.

‘There’s only so far talking about sustainability can get you. Sooner or later you have to act.

‘I’m at a crossroads. And I suspect I’m not the only one.’

If you’d like to write for The Dispatch – they’re run by volunteers from the community and welcome contributors. Equally, get in touch if you’re interested in selling advertising. They can be contacted at news@westleedsdispatch.com.

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