One of the major efforts i developed in the last three months of 2009 was the construction and development of Hashbrum, a group project created by me some of my colleagues of the MA Online Journalism at Birmingham City University. I have meant to discuss here the different aspects of planning and developing a hyperlocal news website, not only adressing the technical issues, but also conceptual matters. We never stayed on the same ground for too long, and we weren’t 100% focused on the project, and this was one of the main reasons we didn’t take the extra step to make HashBrum a more cohesive and truly original. Besides, the main purpose was to build a platform for experimentation for our own works for the MA. But it all went as follows.
What is HashBrum?
HashBrum[i] is a hyperlocal news experimental project, that covers the main Birmingham area. The team was composed by part of the students enrolled in the MA Online Journalism of Birmingham City University. When we started discussing the project, there were many ideas about how to present the news, but the main goal was to create as much interactive and multimedia content as possible.
We were inspired by hyperlocal projects like EveryBlock [ii], Patch.com[iii] or VillageSoup[iv], that used maps as main interfaces, and/or covered specific geographic areas and small communities, on a neighborhood level.
When considering how the layout of the website should lead the users into that type of content, we too thought about using a map that would take most of the immediately visible space. The stories would be embedded in the map, and the users could navigate from story to story using the placemarks.
The agenda would be based in long feature, investigative reporting, using different types of media to create truly multimedia stories. There is audio available of our first three meetings as a team[v], where we discuss a embrionary version of HashBrum and its basic principles and goals, in which we debate some of the ideas I presented before. We wanted to reach out to the community even before we had something to show, and carry that spirit into the content creation phase. Or that was my perspective on what the project was meant to be.
The importance of being Hyperlocal – concepts and business model
What is going on with this hyperlocal thing? We keep hearing about this over and over, like if it was the Great Online Hope. It is in some ways. It is based in a long-tailed, low resourced, small-scale, community based, social networked, geotagged, backyard stories-type of approach. This means more valuable information for specific groups of people, that connect more closely to it. This is also an upgraded echo of the work developed by the lone bloggers that typed away the problems that affect them and their neighbors. Some of that upgrade was provoked by some bloggers themselves, that found a market an audience at their doorstep (or backyard, whatever you prefer).
Reading the (magnificent) lecture by Alan Rusbridge, we come across the case of Will Perrin – who seems to have taken a personal interest in Hashbrum – author and owner of a hyperlocal news website (though he doesn’t call it journalism) covering the King’s Cross area in London, we understand another important factor regarding hyperlocal projects: engagement. Most hyperlocal websites are truly concerned about the quality of life on the places they cover, and are willing to expose, question and fight whoever and whatever stands in the way of that quality of life. It’s journalism not for the common good, beyond that, for the LOCAL good, if you get my drift.
This opens a whole new advertising market. If you check the VillageSoup model, you see that they have room for personalized daily adverts, for a low price, but from dozens of advertisers. Their profit margin is safer and more steady than if they relied solely in two or three big advertisers. Besides, there’s the direct contact, the element of trust, and an organic relationship, established with the local businesses and costumers, the real people, and not a faceless brand. And this is all what being hyperlocal encompasses.
Now, the concept still has somewhat of rogue, and independent, since these projects work better, or at least are more honest, when they come from the users to the media, and not from the media to the users. Even though there are experiments promoted by large media groups in the hyperlocal business, what separates these projects are three specific characteristics:
-proximity to a real, live, community;
-concern for that community;
-a specific agenda adressing the habits, problems and issues of the community;
And this last point is of huge importance: no longer the stories of the community are forgotten, or swept under the rug by the limited space and resources of general news outlets. So when in the description of the website it was written Hashbrum was all about the neglected stories of Birmingham, it felt like we struck gold.
But we needed a place to tell those stories. How it was done stays for the second post of this series.
[v] Audio from the meetings
1st Meeting – http://tinyurl.com/yd9doq8
2nd Meeting – http://tinyurl.com/ydbx5wx
3rd meeting – http://tinyurl.com/yczmvhp