The battle for sustainability in an online landscape is the major challenge facing journalism...
How one London hyperlocal defied expectations and survived its founder leaving the capital
By Jonathan Turton | 1st Mar 2017
Jonathan had written a touching blog post about leaving his beloved London to find more space for his growing family. He told us how the site began life as an experiment to find out if people in West Hampstead wanted to get their local news a different way. But the success of the experiment brought with it a responsibility, and a desire, to follow through and deliver the news in this new and innovative way.
Letting go was never going to be easy. But Jonathan’s determination that the site wouldn’t go down as yet another statistic, means that after a short sabbatical, West Hampstead Life has made a welcome return.
We sat down with Jonathan once again to find out how a hyperlocal can be run from nearly 100 miles away.
“You can either have the money or the legacy, but you probably can’t have both”. The words of one of my closest friends at a small meeting I convened to discuss the future of West Hampstead Life. I argued at the time, but feared he was right.
It was spring 2015. I had already left West Hampstead – my home for the previous 15 years and where, since 2009, I had run one of the country’s more successful hyperlocal websites as a sideline to my main job as a professional writer and editor. I was still publishing articles and cranking out the weekly newsletter on a Sunday night, but this wasn’t sustainable given I no longer lived in London.
We – me and those friends who’d helped along the way – had achieved much in big and small ways. We’d brought together disparate strands of the community at events; we’d had enormous turnouts for political hustings; we’d helped find lost dogs, encouraged engagement with the local neighbourhood plan, and helped people make friends with their neighbours. And we were publishing at least three to four times a week.
I was proud of the legacy and loathe to sell the site to an estate agent for advertising-led articles, or to let it gather dust in the internet archives. The site had commercial value – we generated moderate revenues. I hadn’t done if for the cash, but it was too time-consuming to do for free and surely the brand was worth something. But of course, it was worth only what someone was willing to pay for it.
It seemed that almost every other hyperlocal owner in my position simply had to shut up shop or watch their site dwindle over time. Surely there was another way?
An estate agent sale always looked the most likely option, but one that would certainly be unpopular with readers – legacy tarnished. Would those readers crowdfund a community purchase of the site? Possibly, but then who would actually run it. No-one was sticking their hand in the air.
August 2015. I sent out the 242nd weekly newsletter, which linked to an article entitled “Good night, and Good Luck”. With a baby due within the month, it was time to call it quits. It looked increasingly likely that I wasn’t going to get to keep the legacy or make any money. Hosting costs were low, so I kept the site alive, but there was no new content.
Time ticked by. I had several in-depth conversations with potential buyers. Some had ambitious plans to scale it up but were reluctant to invest accordingly. Others had their heart in the right place, but couldn’t justify the modest amount of money I was asking for. Some were very keen but when I explained the workload and how much below-the-surface paddling there was of answering emails, chasing advertisers, editing images, they got cold feet.
It was starting to look hopeless.
A flicker of hope. One local estate agent said it was willing to stump up a reasonable sum of money as a long-term advertiser if I could find someone to run the site. The agent saw it as a good investment in terms of advertising and a way of signalling broader support of community initiatives. There was no suggestion of any editorial input. I just needed to unearth an editor but after a few more false leads and dead ends I’d all but given up hope. It was spring 2016.
Then along came Mark. We’d met at odd events over the years and he probably knew more about West Hampstead than I did though he was a couple of years younger than me. He was a firm believer in community and though he professed no great skills in writing or journalism he felt that it would be a shame to see WHL simply disappear. Crucially, he had the most important asset of all – he had time. Don’t get me wrong, Mark’s extremely busy – but then I’d always been extremely busy. The key is to be in control of your own time.
We had a couple of meetings and thrashed out an arrangement under which he would become the editor and day-to-day manager of the site. I would retain ownership and be responsible for the commercial side as the publisher, which was easier to do remotely and far less time-consuming. We agreed how to split the income, and I started passing on as much knowledge of running a hyperlocal website as I could while Mark frantically scribbled on pieces of paper.
Newsletter No. 243 came out on May 29th 2016, some 10 months after the last. It’s a tall order for a website to survive that long without any new content but, thanks to continued tweeting from @WHampstead, we’d actually gained 200 newsletter subscribers in that time, passing the 2,000 mark.
We simultaneously published “Welcome back to West Hampstead Life” and tried to sum up 10 months’ worth of news in what became our longest e-mail newsletter ever. The reaction from locals was gratifying.
Eight months on and it’s like West Hampstead Life never stopped. Mark and I work together well; I’ve bullied him into using Trello and Airtable to keep on top of the editorial calendar and we have a weekly catch-up on Slack. At the start of 2017, he moved from a fortnightly newsletter back to a weekly one, which I know is no small undertaking. The website improves every month; output is back to three to four articles a week most weeks and Mark’s newshound skills are definitely up to speed. And the advertisers have returned as well.
Our supportive estate agent has remained good to its word and has not interfered in what we do editorially. Crucially, it agreed to a sizeable early down payment of its two-year total cost, which helped me mitigate the risk that Mark and I would fail to make this work, and also ensured Mark could get some income in those first few months.
It has not all been plain sailing – I’m probably still over-invested emotionally and as a professional editor it’s always hard not to get the red pen out, but Mark’s commitment to make this work has driven us forward and keeps West Hampstead Life on the road. Our six-month trial period has been and gone; after 12 months we’ll start to talk about the next stage, which may involve some transfer of ownership. Eventually, I hope to step away completely, safe in the knowledge that the legacy continues and happy with the extra money that I’ll have made.
In a sector where generating income is challenging, and where so much value is tied up in the expertise and knowledge of founders, hopefully our example will give others optimism that with patience, flexibility, and some negotiation, there is a future for hyperlocals after their founders leave.
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