Northcliffe’s effort to set up a network of local sites has never got much encouragement from elsewhere in the industry and now it is a subject of an academic study which concludes it is not very good.
The basic concept of Local People is clearly brilliant. A network of sites with specially designed applications geared to providing user generated content would in time provide a viable alternative to declining printed press including Northcliffe’s own local titles. Centralised services for tech development, billing, admin, legal etc. should allow local editors to concentrate on the most important thing – generating good content. The idea may have even predated Patch’s attempt to do a similar thing.
A lot of money has been spent on Local People and the design and the applications are pretty good. It will work if they get the right people involved at the local level but the report by Neil Thurman and Paul Bradshaw suggests that they are not. They highlight relatively low levels of engagement on the sites which given that engagement is their primary purpose suggests something is going wrong.
I haven’t done an exhaustive study, or indeed read the report but looking at some of the Local People sites there is a wide diversity of activity on them which is what you would expect. Even the busiest ones I have found are hardly buzzing but they are relatively new and limited engagement is not something confined to Big Media digital efforts at the local level.
The authors are quoted as saying that they are “well behind independent equivalents in terms of engagement with users.” I found this difficult to concur with. There are some that do have higher levels of engagement but they are the exception. I may have missed some ‘independent equivalents’ but the vast majority I’ve looked aren’t well ahead of Local People.
The following quote was also somewhat mystifying, “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.”
No examples were given but, as far as I can ascertain, hyperlocal blogs make up a small proportion of the industry space. There are obviously tons of them because the first thought that anyone with time on their hands and no specific expertise has is to blog about their local area. The results are almost universally unread. There are exceptions such as Chris Underwood’s terrific blog for the Shepherd’s Bush area but if community engagement and meeting audience interests are the benchmarks then blogs seem to me to generally fail. The more conventional news based independent sites are the ones that currently outdo Local People.
I, like most people, don’t like the Daily Mail or anything associated with it and this might account for the hatchet job on Local People and what seems to be a broad based hostility. It is an alarming prospect that if it was to succeed economies of scale could mean that the network came to dominate local media in the UK, but given that the alternatives exist only patchily at best and journalists will need some viable businesses to employ them I think we should be giving Local People a break.