Notes on (hyper)local journalism
Some ideas on what (hyper)local digital news in Ipswich might look like (if I was setting something up: do feel free to fund me, I have the inconvenience of a full time job at the moment):
Why build a local news website?
Ipswich has two mainstream newspapers, the Ipswich Star and the East Anglian Daily Times. Both are owned by the same Norfolk-based company, Archant, and, like hundreds of other British newspapers, have seen their staff numbers and output reduced over the years.
The result is a non-controversial mix of press releases and feelgood fluff, with the exception of a few specialist journalists’ writing and the rare investigative piece.
We do have the excellent Ipswich Spy, which started out as a political blog before expanding into ‘normal’ news, jobs and even a style section, as well as other parts of Suffolk. It’s well connected and continues to report local politics in some depth, but it’s not an investigative website in the same way as The Bristol Cable.
What will it report?
If there is a paucity of good quality local news, what form does a new publication take? Short, frequent news updates or less frequent investigative pieces based on data, requests for information and general digging around? A mix?
What do you cover? Politics, news, music, culture, everything? Do you target an audience with specific content? Everyone? Students? Professionals?
How local is it? The Ipswich urban area has a population of 180,000 - would it make more sense to break this down into ‘hyperlocal’ neighborhoods?
Who reports the new news?
The question of what? will determine the who? Although an investigative piece involves a more thorough, longer approach, shorter, more frequent posts take more people.
Similarly, although Ipswich is a large town, it could be covered by a handful of writers if it kept to town-wide issues. Hyperlocal news needs hyperlocal contributors. While a website boasting 30-40 local journalists sounds great, I wonder how realistic it is? Especially when it’s likely you’ll be relying on volunteers to start with.
Established print newspapers lose money because people expect their news for free. The likes of The Guardian are struggling with this problem, so times that by 100 for a tiny, brand new website.
The ultimate aim for any news publication should be for its contributors and staff to get paid. If we can’t charge for the product, what are the alternatives? Ads don’t work, so that leaves some sort of membership model (again, like the Cable) which offers ownership and control in return for a subscription.
What do you get in return for your subs? Voting rights, a say in the publication’s direction, a mention on the website, access to exclusive content… are these exciting enough to attract cash?
Grants are an obvious form of income, so you should be thinking about fundraising from the start of any project.
Finally, how will contributors be paid? Again, it’d be nice to picture a full time newsroom, but that’s going to cost hundreds of thousands. Instead, payment is more likely going to be based on contributions.
Do you use a 3rd party publisher (Google News, WordPress, Facebook or Medium), thereby saving hosting and development costs? Or do you keep your content your own and set up a site?
The least you’re going to publish is some sort of website, and Twitter and Facebook accounts. Maybe Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat – bear in mind each social media account = more work. I’d definitely encourage a periodic email digest.
Design and what it’ll look like
If you are hosting your own site (and you should be thinking about the dangers of handing over your content to someone else) what software are you going to use? WordPress seems an obvious choice; it comes with comments and categories out of the box, while its huge range of plugins means you’ll be able to add features as and when required.
At this stage you might be thinking: do I buy a news theme or do I build my own? There are some very attractive WordPress newspaper themes out there, but I’d treat them with some caution. Consider whether you’re going to be able to publish enough content to fill the theme? Can you gather enough imagery? Most importantly, will a theme match the needs of how you’ve answered the what will it report? question?
As there is so much uncertainty in a news project perhaps the best approach is to start as small and simple as possible. Begin with a stream of articles and build categories once you find out what you’re publishing. Use large featured images when you have photos and stories big enough to warrant them. Keeping it small and lean makes it easier to change things or even rip it all up and start again.