Could A Functioning Local Media Have Saved Grenfell Tower Residents?

The area around Grenfell Tower is not served by a proper local newspaper. Neither does it seem to have any well-established online local news provision. It is one of the many areas of the UK which is essentially a black spot for dedicated reporting. People died in Grenfell Tower probably because of the type of cladding that was used in the refurbishment but at some point more fundamental causes need to be identified to ensure this kind of catastrophe doesn’t happen again. One of many issues that needs to be addressed is the increasing estrangement of the governed from those who govern them and the disappearance of local news reporting is both a symptom and a cause of this problem.

The Kensington & Chelsea Chronicle was the Trinity Mirror title that covered the area but that has been defunct since 2013. Trinity decided to shutter all their operations  at that time not just in Kensington & Chelsea but in the neighbouring boroughs of Westminster and Hammersmith & Fulham. At the time these three local authorities were Tory controlled and had entered into a tri-borough arrangement in which certain services were shared including the press office. There had been fraught relationship between Trinity and Hammersmith & Fulham in particular dating back to the time when the Council launched H&F News which was a fully functioning local newspaper covering stories beyond those relating to local government.

With Eric Pickles, who was at the DCLG at the time, very much on side of the local press eventually the two sides came to a modus operandi in which the Council closed their newspaper and Trinity was given a seven year contract which guaranteed them the public notice business of the Council. This arrangement didn’t survive very long as Trinity were unable to generate enough commercial revenue to support the paper and they closed their Hammersmith office. At the same time as doing this they also ceased to publish their titles in Kensington &  Chelsea and Westminster.

This resulted in absolute panic at the three local authorities as they were told by the DCLG that they would still have to publish notices in a printed newspaper and the only option was the Evening Standard whose rates would be much higher than they had been paying. If they were forced to use the Standard it would have cost each borough millions. They had to go back to Trinity Mirror cap-in-hand and ask them to provide a solution. This came in the form of ‘The Gazette’ a weekly paid for title which would cover the three boroughs and include all their statutory notices. It is effectively a sub-edition of the Ealing Gazette and doesn’t carry a meaningful amount of local news. It is sold in a number of newsagents throughout the borough and it would probably be a good week for it if its readership reached double figures.

That this arrangement was deemed acceptable shows a contempt for local residents on behalf of both the local authority and central government. The reason that a large amount of Council taxpayers’ money is spent each year on public notices is that they are meant to be kept informed of matters in their borough. The letter of the relevant legislation may not be being broken here but a coach and horses is being driven through the spirit of it and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is allowed to happen because the authorities believe that the more local people know about how they are being ruled the more difficult they will be to rule.

The Gazette is notionally the way that the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea fulfils its statutory duty to keep the residents of Grenfell Tower informed of local government matters. The paper is not even available in most local newsagents  and I would place a large bet that nearly every Grenfell Tower resident like nearly every borough resident is unaware of its existence.

The problem that The Gazette presents is two-fold. Not only does it cut a line of communication between ruled and rulers but it prevents a proper newspaper setting up in Kensington and Chelsea. An attempt was made to fill the void by an independent newspaper Kensington, Chelsea & Westminster Today. Judging by the promotional video on its web site this started with very laudable ambitions to be a community newspaper and it still seems to be operational but most recent editions seem to be almost entirely made up of syndicated content. Similarly its web site has predominantly non-local news and the cursory coverage of the massive news event on its doorstep seems to indicate it doesn’t currently do active local journalism. It would, however, have been clearly in the public interest of the residents of Kensington & Chelsea if this newspaper or one similar could have at least the prospect of being used by the Council for its public notices. My understanding is that the arrangement with Trinity is on the basis that all three Councils continue to use The Gazette making it impractical for one of the boroughs to decide they wish to support an alternative title. Thus there is a stranglehold on what would be the principle source of revenue for anyone seeking to provide a proper newspaper for the area.

There has also been no corresponding rise in online local news coverage to fill the vacuum. Trinity continue to notionally cover the North Kensington area through their GetWestLondon site but don’t seem to have published much other relevant to this part of London in recent months than Met Police press releases. The residents of Grenfell Tower could have literally looked into the borough of Hammersmith & Fulham where sites published by the online only group Neighbour Net provide a tolerable standard of local reporting but they generally have stuck quite rigidly to specific geographic areas so don’t cover Kensington & Chelsea even though we are talking a distance of a few hundred yards geographically.

The lack of a functioning local media meant that the complaints of the Grenfell Action Group never reached a wider audience. It is now destined to become one of the most famous and widely read blogs in UK internet history but only after its dire warnings went unheeded. Until last week that blog probably wasn’t read by most people in Grenfell Tower let alone the rest of the world. Anyone who has worked in local news reporting will tell you that residents’ groups always engage in hyperbole when they want something done. Children will definitely die if the crossing they want put in is denied to them. However, sceptical the reporter is about these claims they are gold dust for providing strong stories. If there had been a local newspaper or community news site for North Kensington they would almost have certainly have published headlines based on the Action Group’s dire warnings about fire safety.

It cannot be claimed however that had this happened something would have been done to have saved the residents. If you read the Grenfell Action Group blog there is lots about fire safety concerns but nothing specifically about the material used for cladding which is hardly surprising.  Where local media would have come into play here is that Councillors and Council Officers would have been aware that the complaints of the residents were reaching a wider audience and that would have been an extra incentive to take them seriously. Whether the different attitude from the local authority this would have engendered would have been sufficient to alter the chain of events that led to the fire we will never know. What we do know is that lack of accountability leads to bad government and a local press increases accountability.

Theresa May will keep telling us that she and her Government are listening to local people. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea will say that they have always listened to the concerns of residents. However, without a functioning independent media a key channel of communication has been lost. Governments and Councils are most likely to do things they would otherwise be unwilling to do when they are embarrassed and local newspapers have the greatest capacity to cause them embarrassment. The community of North Kensington needs to be rebuilt from the ground up and a local media that gave them a voice would be an easy and quick win in this endeavour.

This could actually be achieved without a penny of extra public money being spent. All it would require is for the DCLG to tell local authorities that zombie newspaper arrangements like that used for The Gazette are no longer acceptable. No new legislation would be required as the law clearly intends that public notices be published in something that is providing proper local news and is read by local people.  If the DCLG instructed Councils that their expectation is that public notices had to be placed in local newspapers that could demonstrate a minimum level of news coverage and a minimum level of readership overnight you would create a significant incentive for investment in local journalism. If the DCLG also said that they believe the law places more emphasis on ‘news’ rather than ‘paper’ in determining which publications can be used, the door could be opened to digital publishers including Trinity Mirror themselves who would be forced to beef up their online reporting if they wanted to keep the significant amount of money they get from these authorities. Digital would probably work better in a borough like Kensington & Chelsea where local authority tower blocks are mixed with Notting Hill and South Kensington mansion blocks all of which are fiendishly difficult to deliver a newspaper to.

A public enquiry and perhaps even a Royal Commission will look into the aftermath of this month’s tragic events and it will take years for their recommendations and practical solutions to take effect therefore a chance to make North Kensington a more cohesive place quickly, easily and cheaply should not be passed up. My concern would be that a Government rocking from Brexit, their thin majority, the anger over Grenfell, the wave of terror attacks and all the other day to day concerns will be too shell-shocked to do anything imaginative and unconventional to make people’s lives better.

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Statutory Notices: Will Anybody Actually Want Eric’s Going Away Present?

At last! Someone is getting to grips with the problem of tens of millions of pounds being spent on providing key information about what is happening in their area in a way that almost guarantees they won’t see it. Eric Pickles at the Department of Communities and Local Government is asking people to bid for funding for innovative pilot projects to ‘bring the process into the 21st Century’.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there is any reason to get too excited about Mr. Pickle’s appeal. It is hard to get past the idea that this is a box-ticking exercise that is being undertaken for reasons that would only make sense to someone working in the public sector. The best guess is that there was a small amount of unallocated funding and this was one way the department thought they could use it up.

The over-arching problem with the initiative is that both the two key participants have a vested interest in it not working.

Eric Pickles has made it clear that nothing in this exercise will threaten the market position of the major newspaper groups and a very strong hint is given that they should be involved in any proposal. This commitment is underwritten by the presence of the News Media Association (NMA) on the selection panel.

Despite this some in the industry will view this project as less of a chance to innovate and more like asking a turkey what sort of stuffing it wants for Christmas. The dilemma that the newspapers have is that, were they to successfully bid for funds to launch a pilot scheme and it worked well, this could end up undermining the market position of the whole industry. The inherent contradiction in this initiative is that, as everyone knows, the newspapers enjoy a massive public subsidy through an archaic system which gives them a monopoly on the publication of Council notices. The mere suggestion that there could be a better way of doing this presents a challenge to the status quo. What seems to be on the table is a small amount of funding to develop add-on digital distribution for the existing print copies of notices. There is no suggestion that there will be additional payment from local authorities for the improved level of service they are getting.

Every major newspaper group currently has a faction within the organisation that would see this as an opportunity rather than a threat. The digital teams at most local newspaper groups are always pointing out that they have the most readers and would love the opportunity to take a tilt at providing an enhanced public notice service. The ‘dead tree’ faction counter by pointing out that they are making all the money and that even if their digital colleagues can make a better job of publishing notices their company will end up getting paid less overall thereby winning the argument.

Local authorities are also going to view this initiative with very mixed feelings. Every Council in the country wants to do away with the requirement to publish these notices in the local paper. They don’t believe they should be subsidising a failing industry and argue that circulations have become so low that there is an increasing danger they will be found not to have met their statutory obligations even if they have placed a notice. In their view the problem would be solved by allowing them to carry the notices themselves in their magazines and on their web site. By partnering in a pilot a Council would be endorsing Pickle’s non-negotiable stance on newspapers remaining involved in the process. Pickles will not be the minister in May and with Labour ahead in the polls at the moment local authorities will be assuming that an administration will be in place that will be more sympathetic to their way of thinking.

The short-time scale for this initiative is very interesting. It was announced on 28th December with a deadline for submissions on 28th January and a decision date in March. This is ridiculously rushed and the reasons must be political. The most obvious explanation is that there is an expectation that Labour would have shut the whole thing down on coming into office.

Some Councils probably will bid for funding but only because it is in their DNA to bid for funding where it is available. It will be done cynically in the knowledge that the initiative is likely to be ended before the project is even implemented.

There has been some fluttering of excitement from hyperlocals on this process but they are effectively excluded from it. Councils are genuinely concerned about breaches of statutory duty due to a failure to put a notice in a publication that has a sufficient distribution and very few hyperlocals have an audience size that would give them any comfort in that regard. Even where it is arguable that they do have sufficient readership, they rarely, if ever, cover a whole administrative area.

When the DCLG talk about newspapers they clearly mean something that is made out of paper rather than something that provides quality local news. They state in their FAQs regarding the exercise, “The statutory requirements to publish notices in newspapers are contained in a large number of primary and secondary pieces of legislation. Amending these would be resource intensive and time consuming, and would inevitably delay the pilots for some considerable time.”

This ignores convincing arguments made by some hyperlocals that no amendment to the law would be necessary for Councils to use them for public notices. The contradiction in asking people for initiatives on public notices which will all involve digital methods and not clarifying whether they can have an expectation of a revenue stream from publishing them is clearly daft and can only signify that that the process is all about protecting the larger media groups’ market position.

With only ‘low hundreds of thousands’ on offer in total for this initiative it is too small and too badly timed to effect any real change. What really matters at this stage is what the next Government will do. It is safe to assume that this will be a Labour administration or a Labour dominated coalition.

On the one hand they will be a lot more receptive than Pickles to local authority pleas to end the subsidy to local newspapers. On the other hand the lobbying power of the newspapers in the shape of the NMA remains formidable and it is unlikely that the next Government will take them on. My best guess is that there will be a relaxation of the current publicity code to allow ‘Town Hall Pravdas’ to be set up again if the local authority can prove that the local newspaper has an insufficient distribution or employs too few people in the local authority area. As a quid pro quo the newspapers will be allowed to combine their print and digital readership in any determination of whether or not their readership is large enough as long as they are publishing public notices digitally. The NMA won’t like it but they will only be forced to close titles with a small readership and a limited number of staff and their current privileged position will continue to be protected so it probably the best deal they could get. Councils will like it because it will give them extra leverage over the newspapers and a chance to set up their own. The NUJ will like it because their members will end up in better paid jobs in the public sector. The only people who will lose out are the public who will continue to be poorly served despite the millions of pounds they have to pay to be kept informed about what is happening in their area.

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2014 – The Year The Hyperlocal Dream Ended?

At the start of the year I confidently expected and publicly predicted that 2014 would be one of profound change in local media in the UK. In the event nothing that significant happened. Read what is written below with that health warning in mind.

Anyone that reads Private Eye or follows @mediaguido knows that there is an increasingly fraught division in newsrooms between print and digital. One side points out that they make all the money, the other points out that they have all the readers. This split is just as evident and often just as bitter in local news organisations maybe more so as the ratio of readership between print and digital has moved far further in favour of the latter in the regionals.

Anyone who thinks there is no appetite for local news should look at the growth numbers seen for the web sites of the regional press particularly in the metropolitan areas of England. Even allowing for the apples and pears nature of the comparison between someone who picks up a newspaper and someone who visits a newspaper web site, regional publishers probably had their highest ever readership in 2014 if you add print and digital audience.

The year however was a continuation of the trend of closure and lay offs concentrated in content creation because very little money is made from this explosion in readers.

The argument used by the digital faction in local news organisations is that print only makes all the money because of market distortion not because digital is fundamentally more difficult to monetise. The main way the playing field is skewed is by the requirement for statutory notices to be put in the print edition of the newspaper. I argued sometime ago that the increased willingness of the local newspaper groups to trumpet their digital success was a prelude to them adopting the idea that public notices could be put on their online editions. This view was based on conversations with people on the digital side of the industry who were arguing that profitability would increase despite the likely reduction in cost for local authorities. This is because print titles that were over dependent on an effective subsidy from the local authority would close and the costs saved would be outweighed by the revenue increase for the digital side.

The love of print remains within the DNA of the regional newspaper industry and even when Eric Pickles made a call for a ’21st century approach’ to statutory notices the response from both local authorities and regional media was deafening silence according to insiders at the DCLG. That Councils stonewalled the call is not hard to understand as Pickles made it clear that the exclusion of third party media from the process was not on the agenda. Every local authority in the country longs for the day when they don’t have to pay for putting notices in newspapers. The lack of response from the regional media groups is more complex to understand. There were some in the local newspaper industry who saw this as the last chance to set the agenda for the development of local media for the next decade. They feel that the ‘dinosaurs’ in their organisations got the upper hand on the issue and, out of fear that accepting that accepting that some notices could be published digitally was the thin end of the wedge, opted to do nothing.

What the consequences of this are going to be won’t be known until after the election. Labour’s Digital Government Review will inevitably look more favourably on the demands of the local authorities. Whilst a wholesale move to publication of notices on Council web sites is unlikely, it is inconceivable that they would pass up the opportunity to implement measures that would be popular, encourage use of technology and save money. The cost would be born by the local newspaper industry but the big metropolitan newspapers which tend to cover Labour supporting areas are less dependent on public notice revenues for survival so the closures would be in smaller towns and rural areas which tend to elect non-Labour MPs.

The decision would then need to be made as to whether retaining a small number of staff to continue publishing news digitally would be economically viable. The sales efforts of many publishers are so wedded to print that they may decide ‘no’ but given the relatively low cost of staying in the game and the ownership of an already substantial audience many will continue.

Independent hyperlocals do seem to be getting squeezed by the renewed energy in digital of the larger publishers. Numbers produced by Dave Harte of the Birmingham School of Media showed a decline in the number of hyperlocal publishers over the last year. (I was going to link to this very interesting research but his site was down at the time of writing). Even allowing for the demise of the Local People Network the underlying numbers are depressing and Mr Harte’s methodology includes any sites which have had a single update in the last five months – a very generous definition of what should be defined as active.

To add to what was a miserable year for the sector, NESTA, who were tasked with rescuing the independent hyperlocals with potfuls of public money, seem to have come to the conclusion that the existing publishers were part of the problem not the solution. This resulted in the truly perverse decision to fund to the tune of £800,000 an enterprise called TownFizz which was basically a clone of the aforementioned Local People. The daftness of this idea was made even more evident after one hyperlocal independent had to ditch fund raising plans because of the competitive threat offered by TownFizz.

The hyperlocal scene in London remains quite robust with most of the commercially sustainable sites in the country being based here. However, there haven’t really been any successful launches for the last three years. The established sites are consolidating their position but new sites are not emerging to cover areas even where a news vacuum has emerged with the demise of the local paper. As far as I can tell there have been no new sites launched in Kensington and Chelsea or Westminster as a result of the shuttering of the newspapers covering those boroughs.

The failure of the independents to fill the news gap is quite worrying as, if Labour do win the next election (or become the largest party in a coalition) and they adopt a scorched earth policy towards local media by reducing or turning off the flow of public subsidy, the expectation that the internet will step forward to fill the gap will be misplaced.

What we have seen in 2014 is confirmation, if it were needed, that the appetite for local news remains huge. This news does need to be professionally produced and the ability to do this remains concentrated in the larger regional publishers. The independent hyperlocals are being squeezed for readership by the resurgent digital efforts of ‘big’media who look set for the time-being to continue to enjoy the fruits of the public notice related subsidy.

In 2015 the most likely scenario is that a Labour led Government will in some way reduce that subsidy but the capacity of independent hyperlocals to fill the gap is in doubt. There will be fewer journalist covering local news and it may well be that 2014 comes to represent the peak of local news readership in this country.

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WordPress and Hyperlocal

My early post on London Hyperlocal rankings attracted a lot of comment and feedback, most of it surprisingly positive. I say surprisingly, because the exercise was very unscientific and involved a high degree of guess work so I anticipated some site owners would be unhappy if they didn’t rank well.

The area for which I have received the most grief is the one which I was planning to avoid initially because it was the most difficult to assess – ranking by traffic. Sites use a range of measurement tools and some stats packages can be remarkably generous. Destination Local’s report ‘Here and Now’ cited the example of Wimbledon Visitor which was claiming 79,000 uniques a month in June 2008. Have a look at the site and see if you think that is in anyway credible – the population of Wimbledon is about 65,000.

The number probably isn’t fabricated and may be partly inflated by people looking for the tennis tournament – the site may have enjoyed a temporary traffic surge due to a good search engine position in 2008. Given the static nature of the site the most likely explanation for the number of visitors is the stats package used. Many are not effective in screening out the bots, spiders, image trolls and other non-human sources of traffic.

For this reason, when I was attempting to rank sites, I tried to stick with ones that were using Google Analytics which usually delivers a fairly conservative number. On this basis I concluded that commercial sustainability for a site required it to reach about 20,000 uniques a month and if you could get over 50,000 your site would be highly profitable.

This prompted some people to contact me pointing out that there were a number of sites that exceeded this amount of traffic and didn’t make the immediate leap to commercial sustainability that I had confidently predicted. As they were outside London they weren’t really part of the exercise but this does raise interesting questions.

All of the sites that people highlighted were created with WordPress. In one case the site was claiming more than 100,000 unique visitors and was using Google Analytics to derive these numbers. The site was clearly of a high quality and undoubtedly would have been getting healthy traffic but when monthly uniques are above the population area that a site covers, it has to be accepted that something is amiss.

The issue of high visitor counts for off-the-shelf software is something that I have come across in other work I have done.  Basically as soon as you use any third part code online, an army of hackers will start probing your site for possible weaknesses. It didn’t take much searching on Google to show that this is an issue for WordPress.

It is important to note that, just because visitor numbers for WordPress sites may be overstated, that doesn’t mean that its use a tool for the creation of a hyperlocal site is cancelled out. A large proportion of sites launched in this sector launched since 2010 have used WordPress. It has allowed site owners to easily produce beautiful looking sites with cross platform compatibility. 

However, there doesn’t seem to be a good example at this stage of a WordPress based hyperlocal site that has become commercially successful – please do correct me here if I am wrong. I use WordPress and it is a brilliant blogging tool but maybe that is the problem – despite the existence of some terrific themes to make your site look like a news resource the architecture remains on of a blog. Perhaps it is missing some of the key elements for hyperlocal success and therefore does not represent the short cut that many people believe it does.

On the other hand it may be that the apparent failure of WordPress to bring about a new generation of successful hyperlocal sites has more to do with the increasing difficult of audience acquisition. Longer established sites are willing to admit that their audience growth numbers are not what they were. This isn’t a specific hyperlocal problem – the multiplication of channels has meant that most media is managing audience number decline not growth. It could be that WordPress based sites came about just when the operating environment was getting tougher.







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London Hyperlocal Rankings

I’ve revisited the numbers that I did two years ago because people found them very interesting first time around and there were some serious omissions, one of which I spotted last week. It’s just for fun so please don’t get cross if I’ve missed your site out. Will be happy to amend these numbers on receipt of new data. I’ve made an attempt to work out comparative revenue and traffic numbers this time but as you see it is very broad brush. 

Top Twenty London Hyperlocals by Twitter Followers

Site Name – Followers 2012 – Followers 2014 – 15,500 – 26,422
Brixton Blog  – 6,660 – 16,189
Hackney Citizen – n/a – 14,219
yeah! Hackney – 7,220 – 13,822
Kings Road – n/a – 12,120
Kentishtowner – n/a, 11,349
BeckenhamTown.US – 3,842 – 9,325
Brixton Buzz – n/a 9,277 – 4,837 – 8,619
Crouch End – n/a 6,861
East London Lines – 3,202 – 6,695
Love Clapham – n/a 6,634
Harringay Online –  3,295 – 6,213
Teddington Town – n/a 6,187
Hackney Hive – n/a, 6,173
Twickerati – n/a, 6,111
Brockley Central – 3,786 – 5,968 – 3,021 – 5,503
Merton One Stop Local – n/a, 5143
Love Herne Hill – n/a 4,113
Camberwell Blog – 2,712, 3911

When I did this last time my list was woefully inadequate and I missed out a significant number of sites. I probably have done the same again this time but not on the same scale. With a fuller picture these numbers show up quite an interesting pattern. Twitter followers of sites based in South East and North East London tend to be huge whereas West and South West are much smaller. Possibly this reflects demographic patterns with the former having more professional twenty somethings.

London Top Ten Hyperlocals By Registered Membership

East Dulwich Forum – n/a, 42,371* – 19,500 – 23,077 – 7,300  – 7,300** – 5,740 – 6,544 – 5,204 –  6,292  – 3,512 – 5,944
Harringay Online – 4,000 – 5,000+ – 3,900 – 4,491 – 2,600 – 3,131 – 2,903 – No updated numbers – 2,040 – 2,311

*Apologies again to Mark at East Dulwich Forum for missing him off last time. His site actually has over 60,000 registered member but he estimates the number above is the amount of real active accounts.

**James at SE1 points out that his site has two membership lists – one for newsletter subscriptions and one for the forum

Top London Hyperlocals By Revenue

Most sites have been a bit cagey about how much money they are making and I’ve tended to assume if they are reluctant to share numbers the numbers are low.

To work it out I’ve looked at claimed traffic numbers and ad rates on site with an adjustment for the quality of advertisers (lower revenue assumptions for Ad Words and banner farms).

There is no pretence this is anything other than broad brush so I’ve categorised them in terms of six figure or five figure annual revenues. There are bound to be some I’ve missed so if you should be on this list please let me know.

Six Figure Annual Revenue

Five Figure Annual Revenue

Harringay Online



It’s quite a short list but I think there are large number of site in the four figure annual revenue category that wouldn’t need that much more of a push to get to five. At that level a site appears to be sustainable and once it gets there tends to break the short life cycle of hyperlocal. I’m not entirely convinced that any hyperlocal outside London has a five figure revenue.

Top London Hyperlocals By Traffic

In some ways this is even more difficult to calculate than revenue because there are so many different ways that sites measure traffic. Some sites report numbers which are plainly inflated – not that they are trying to mislead it is just that their stats package is not good at weeding out bots and spam attempts.

I don’t think it is possible to even guess at rankings based on traffic but with 60,000 uniques a month and Kentishtowner with 50,000 will definitely be among the top few. Harringay Online quotes 30,000 and sites like, and are in the 20,000 plus range.

What this seems to indicate is that 20,000 visitors a month is probably the target for any site wishing to be economically sustainable.

As ever all feedback is appreciated.


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Local World Are Not Stupid

Firstly, apologies for the neglect of this blog. I’ve been busy with proper work and had nothing interesting to say.

Local World is a profoundly disliked and distrusted organisation. It is no secret that its reason for being is to cut costs within local newspapers until they increase profits regardless of the impact on the quality of output. 

There is a danger in assuming that the company is run by greedy idiots. David Montgomery is a fiercely intelligent man and there are people in Local World who have a profound understanding of the likely future direction of the local news industry.

Their recent trumpeting of digital traffic figures represents a very significant shift in strategy and hints at a fundamental change about to take place in local news.

Local World claim 14 million unique visitors across their network in December – a doubling over the last year. A lot of people have suggested that these numbers are exaggerated, and they are probably right, but that misses the point. The visitor numbers for local newspaper web sites have been impressive for some time but they have usually been ignored or downplayed by the publisher. Ad sales teams hate to see strong web traffic numbers being published because clients look at declining print sales and rising digital readership and start to consider the latter option for which the unit price is generally a lot lower.

That Local World are making a big deal of their web traffic suggests a change in thinking. All local newspaper groups have been talking about the shift to digital for a long time but the way they have run their businesses suggests that their main concern was to protect the legacy print operations for as long as possible. Local World have recognised that this isn’t sustainable. A high profile expensive hire as head of digital announced today by Johnson Press indicates they are thinking along the same lines.

Most people would accept that in ten, if not five, years time local news will be predominantly digital. Whilst some quality titles will endure, a large number of ‘zombie’ newspapers surviving only through public notice business will disappear. Local World probably have some insight into how this change will take place. Last year the Newspaper Society fought off an attempt by local authorities to end the requirement to publish Traffic Management Orders (TMO) in a newspaper. The lobbying power of the newspapers remains significant but the Government are unlikely to be willing to continue the massive effective subsidy for ever.

Councils want to publish public notices themselves arguing that this would be a more effective and cheaper way of reaching the public than the current system and they are not wrong however the retention of the TMO requirement shows that the Government recognised this would be apocalyptic for newspapers. The ruling has prevented Councils publishing public notices solely on their web sites but it does not mean that they can’t fulfil their statutory duty by publishing them on the newspapers’ web sites. The reason this has not happened so far is that the media groups have not promoted it because the prices they can charge for doing this online will probably be lower. Cash strapped Councils are going to recognise this and start suggesting that notices are run on web sites only.

Local World must be aware of this danger and seem to be embracing it by boasting of their digital readership. They will have calculated that if they can switch a guaranteed revenue stream from print to digital then can increase profits even if that revenue stream is much reduced because the costs of digital are much lower. In 2014 you will probably see them negotiating with local authorities to switch publication to digital in advance of the closure of more print titles.

The absence of new competitive threats in the provision of local digital news will probably have given them the confidence to make this switch. 2013 was hardly a banner year for independent hyperlocal. There was a lot of fanfare about the NESTA funding for this sector but the harsh reality seems to be that they decided early that the existing hyperlocal publishers were not worth backing and the money is going to mobile-based location services which really aren’t much to do with local news. As far as I can see, outside a few isolated patches of London, independent hyperlocal offers no credible competitive threat to the established media firms. If local authorities did start to switch their public notices to digital news sites in most places firms like Local News would still have an effective monopoly, and although prices would be lower than print, they would retain some pricing power once the switch has been made.

Recent history has also shown that entry into this market is very difficult reducing the chances that new digital only publishers will be cropping up across the country. Building an audience online gets harder every year and the entrenched market position of operations like Local World provides them with a high degree of protection.

The big losers from all this are not going to be journalists in my view. Paper manufacturers can start worrying and with most marginal newspapers currently free, distribution companies will get less business but if the cut in costs outweighs the cut in revenues the decline in content quality can be reversed. A leaner operation with more journalists is likely to be the end result. Once newspaper companies have recognised that their digital titles are the future because their costs are underwritten they will need to tackle the need for a mindset change in their sales departments and possibly a short term drop in revenues but if they continue growing their audience this will soon be reversed with increased revenues from the private sector.

The guaranteed winner in all this will be local authorities. The cost savings for them will be significant and a switch to digital will make it far more likely that public notices actually get read.

When these changes happen they won’t be gradual. Once one local authority has made the switch the pressure will be on for them all to do it and the changes in the local news scene will be very dramatic. As soon as the first public notice appears digitally half the print titles in the country may be gone within 12 months but I’d be surprised if a single journalist loses their job as a result.





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The Crisis at the BBC and Hyperlocal

A leading figure at the BBC departs in a blaze of controversy. The change signals not just the loss of a job for one man but a fundamental shift in the direction of a public service broadcaster. Shock and outrage follows and there is general agreement that the BBC is an over-managed entity and fundamental change is necessary.

Maybe, this is overstating it a bit. Actually things seem to have settled down somewhat at the Beeb since Danny Baker left and all those predicting that his departure would prove to be the beginning of the end have been proved wrong. What did you say? George who?

One problem I face in trying to reach profound conclusions about the BBC in local media is that I rarely listen to any of their output. On the rare occasions that I was accidentally tuned in to shows like Vanessa Feltz’s it would take me less than ten minutes to reach the most gloomy conclusions about the human condition. Can it really be the case that there are callers to the show who are screened out because they are of lower quality than the ones that get through? During times of previous unemployment I did have the opportunity to listen to Danny Baker’s Treehouse which was a polar opposite to most of the rest of the station’s output. Danny is the master of filling airtime and I do get the point that he has been recycling similar material for decades now but given that his broadcasting remains funny and entertaining that hardly seems to matter. I know I would be a better citizen if I listened to phone in about the Mayor’s social housing policy but I simply find people ringing in about unusual clothes horses they have owned much more enjoyable.

The Treehouse has been felled reportedly because BBC management wanted more community based radio with an increased proportion of content generated by ‘you the listener’. This agenda is to be brought forward by BBC buses going out into the community and asking Londoners what they think. In other words it is like a phone in but staff actually have to meet the crazies that ring in with opinions uninfluenced by facts.

Management at BBC London have clearly bought in to the increasingly fashionable view that content should primarily be created and shaped by the listeners themselves. The belief is that in a digital age media can move away from all powerful professionals deciding the news agenda and ‘you the listener’ will drive content. This thinking is being pushed hard by some academics and ‘social media consultants’ and it is getting an enthusiastic response from middle management whose primary task is cost-cutting. Danny Baker was paid surprisingly little for his Treehouse show as he told us in his final broadcast but he is a lot more expensive than Ron from Ilford who will fill at least five minutes of air time with his views about parking on the High Street.

Disciples of this view have almost universally never worked in the production side of the industry. Anybody who has would be able to point out that the very essence of news broadcasting is listening to the listeners. Your audience being able to tell you what they think is not a new thing with both e-mail and the telephone dating back to the last century. Any media with a significant audience will have been getting significant audience feedback for decades. Twitter may have increased the level but it hasn’t changed the nature of the media. As any journalist will tell you, the problem with what your audience tell you is that most of it is unusable. 90% is either from the mentally ill, the politically over-engaged, the grudge holders or the local business hoping for a plug. One thing you quickly learn is that readers and listeners who get in touch are not broadly representative of readers and listeners and if you let them determine content you will lose your audience very quickly. The art of good journalism at a local level is distinguishing the nuggets of great story ideas or information that your audience send you from the dross that forms most of their output.

Although the road that BBC London is going down is clearly going to be a wrong turn, I am a loss to suggest what they should do. There is still some high quality stuff on the station. People have raved to me about Robert Elms and everytime I have listened to it, I have been impressed. However, everytime I have listened to it, it has also been about an area of London I have no knowledge or interest in. Local history is fascinating if it is about the place where you live but ultimately tedious if it is not. This highlights the fundamental problem for BBC London. Londoners are generally uninterested in anything outside a two mile radius of where they live. This means that there is probably a less than 10% chance of an item being relevant and interesting for them. The only thing that really binds Londoners together is transport which is why there are so many items on Boris Johnson and Bob Crow. It has to be remembered that London is bigger and more diverse than the majority of countries so the concept of local isn’t a great fit.

It is hard not to link the sacking of Danny Baker and the station’s change of direction to the advent of Local TV in London. One thing that should be taken into account is the sheer rage that this has generated amongst staff there. They argue that public money is being spent to set up a station which will an inferior copy of their existing offering. They are probably not wrong. I’ve chatted to some of the people involved in the bids and they admit that even if they were to win they don’t see a long term future for their station. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a degree of panic at the Beeb in London and are trying to meet the challenge head on. Unfortunately, the local TV bidders have all basically said they are going to base their station’s output on ‘you the listener.’ This is an approach that is probably forced upon them by cost constraints but has the added benefit of sounding great to people who know nothing about media. It would take vision, energy, imagination and a bigger budget for the BBC not to follow the same strategy.

One outcome that is reasonably certain is that BBC London’s output will become more hyperlocal. It is hard to see if this will be an opportunity or a threat to the existing players in this sector and having chatted to some they don’t really know themselves. At this stage there is a great deal of scepticism that the mindset at the BBC will change in any meaningful way. Although hyperlocal sites in London have some influential advocates in the BBC, such as Jeremy Vine, at lower level they appear to alternate between being patronising and suspicious. There is some optimism that the departure of Helen Boaden as head of news at the BBC will lead to a more constructive approach but it is not clear what practical steps could be taken for BBC to work more closely with independent hyperlocals in London other than to rethink their linking policy for news items. Despite being more developed than other areas of the country there is only effective hyperlocal coverage of about a quarter of the population of London. It is interesting to note that the Local TV bidders don’t seem to have even bothered trying to incorporate them into their pitches. This is probably down to the patchy nature of geographic coverage.

It is hard to see this playing out in any other way than a slightly depressing one. The BBC’s local output in London will decline in quality as will its audience. The winner of the Local TV franchise in London will take their handout and half-heartedly fulfill the terms of their franchise until their station is quietly put to sleep and London Hyperlocals will be seen as more of a threat than an opportunity by the public sector broadcaster. There is only one thing I can suggest to improve this gloomy scenario – Bring Back Danny Baker!



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