Last Monday I went to the Future of News meetup, West Midlands branch, organized by Philip John. It was a fun bit, and a chance to meet new people. I’m all for discussing and debating, come up with new ideas and go a bit crazy with them, or else it will be just like homework. Fortunately we were a relaxed group, and not even the classroom environment (gently provided by BCU) got in the way. Being too serious about anything is what keeps some good ideas in the dark, especially when we all have the same basic perspective on the subject.
Then, without further ado, we split into three separate groups for a challenge. The brief that I gave to the groups was this; they are managing a start-up news operation with six month’s worth of funding. Their funders will not back them again after the six months is up so they need to find a viable business model within that timeframe. The funding will get them an office with all the necessities, two people (these could be journalists, or not) and kit (laptops, smartphones) for 3 people (i.e. you and your staff of two). There were no limits on what kind of news operation, what area (geographic or otherwise) to report or anything else – it was a very open brief.
The second group seemed to be obsessed with porn, interestingly, though there were some good suggestions. They came up with News Butler, a tailored news service which will take your preferences and then phone you each day to tell you the news that’s important to you. We were promised that Jon Hickman would be the guy on the other end of the phone – watch this space. There was also the news booth where you go and submit your own news. The most serious suggestion though, and one that really caught my attention was event journalism – providing reporting services for events. It was then that I filled everyone in on the last UK Future of News Group meetup where Not On The Wires launched their service after covering the G20 and Berlin Project.
I have to clarify one thing, since this was my group: we weren’t obsessed with porn, it just came up, and the group is not to blame, but me. The rest were respectable, wholesome, decent people, (well, most of them). Since I find that a bit boring I tend to stray a bit and, besides, news and porn are not that different:
The news business isn’t the only industry being upended by aggregators and amateurs online. Pornographers are suffering too — and newspapers could learn a thing or two from them. Here’s why:
Amateur content and “tube sites” (that’s industry-speak for free porn portals) have been eroding revenues in the porn industry, according to a story from Monday’s Los Angeles Times. But at least one porn company is embracing something every online news editor has grappled with quite a bit: Aggregation.
Frustratingly for porn producers and distributors in the Valley, none of these [aggregation] sites appears to be making much money. Suzann Knudsen, a marketing director for PornoTube, said the site’s parent, Adult Entertainment Broadcast Network, uses it to attract customers for paid video on demand.
“PornoTube isn’t a piggy bank,” she said. “Its true value is in traffic.”
Yes, they both have similar problems, being the rise of the amateurs (so to speak…) the biggest one. Since news people take themselves too seriously, they usually forget to think out of the box. But that’s alright, more fun for me. Anyway, and so you know that the group had good ideas, me, Caroline Beavon and Dan Davies – who were also in the group – recorded a small podcast for the Online Journalism module about business models, that has most of the ideas we discussed in between the porn conversation.
The main idea is that there is not a single business model, but different ways to generate revenue. Small structures must find any means in their reach to add value to their content so that it can be bought by users or major news outlets, and provide services useful for their local markets. If you have a news website you have copy and design expertise, that can be financially more accessible for local businesses than the average offer available in the market. I’ve gone through this in my other blog, there are lots of things a local news website can do to make money. And the news is not the biggest part of it, and it never was, most of the time.
This is the final post about hyperlocal websites, that started with my own experience with HashBrum, as described in one, two, three posts, and with the special contribution of five sapient minds that work on hyperlocal endeavors. I learned a lot from my own efforts – mine and the rest of the team’s – and also from this reflection. It was interesting to analyze the list of characteristics presented by different people for hyperlocal websites and find common terms, common ideas, a common ground, even in the choice of words. Here’s what i learned, organized around a few main concepts. To understand them better, you should have read the previous posts of this series, but i think this will be quite clear and straight to the point.
Why are hyperlocal news websites important? Why do people feel inclined to “backyard news”? Precisely. Proximity is the keyword here, and it’s not only a geographical concept, it’s also about the relationships that a hyperlocal blogger/journalist must have with the community (s)he covers. You have to live there, be a part of it, like Will Perrin said. You’ll beat any other local newspaper because of your knowledge, you know the ground better than them, the real problems, because they are your problems too. And since you are there, you can get to the news faster, and stay on them for a longer period of time, without deadline constraints: you have availability. And will the local media send a reporter for every story you find interesting? Not really, no. Your broken streetlight is not an issue for the general audience, but it is for the people who live in that street: granularity, or , it’s the small stuff that counts.
Another good thing that hyperlocal websites are good at is by providing a better user experience. Innovationand experimentation in storytelling, using maps, multimedia, different ways to look at and navigate through the news. And without the need for a huge investment, because most of the tools to create a website like this are free and open source, so only a small financial investment is required, the real expense here is time. But to be effective, the hyperlocal website’s technology must promote participation, allow people to offer their input, and the users should be able to conform their experience through customization, getting the information they want, the way they want.
At the core of hyperlocal behavior is passion. It’s your reality, or at least a reality that is right outside your front door. The level of engagement and commitment hyperlocal news websites have are huge, compared to the average reporter, who is assigned for a story and educated to be detached. Hyperlocal reporters are involved in the story and they can afford to be critical and assertive close to the local authorities, and use their work to improve their community’s living standards and environment. It’s what matters to a few, that becomes really important.
Another relevant characteristic is adaptability. A good hyperlocal website is aware of it’s shortcomings and is constantly looking for new ways to do their work, something quite impossible to do in the bigger, slower structures of traditional media, and their sluggish procedures and bureaucracies. They can be built and developed fast, and still bring added value.
A new market is open for these projects: since it’s about and for the local community, it is also an advertising opportunity for local businesses, who can’t afford ads in the pages of a newspaper. If instructed to develop interaction and user experience like the hyperlocal website should do, there is a lot to get out of this, for local businesses.
The bottom line is, your neighborhood news matter, whether it’s a poorly made manhole, or a broken streetlight, or crime. It’s these bits of information that become important when you are living – or wanting to live – in a neighborhood. And if there’s a way to connect us back to our neighbors, whom we usually don’t know, and join efforts to improve our real, every day life experience, it was well worth it. And if you want to do it, there isn’t much stopping you. All you have to do is to talk to people who live next to you, see what is already being discussed online, and build a space to host the information that matters. All it takes is time, and quick thinking.
When we first thought about HashBrum, we believed we could create a small network of street level information, and let the different communities take part in the process. In the end we leaned towards reporting specific issues neglected by the local media, who didn’t have room in their agendas or the resources to cover them, or do comprehensive follow ups on the developments. It’s the idea that a brief article in local media can be a huge story for a community/hyperlocal website. And do you know what?, sometimes they’re huge for other communities too, that have the same problems, and what seemed to be an isolated event might be a more general issue within society.
With the fragmentation brought by the internet, the rule is no longer defined by the majority. It”s the individual’s rules and needs that matter, and we can customize them in size, subject and location. With all this power, citizens can start improving the world, starting at their doorsteps. Or just have their garbage collected more often. If you have your own ideas on this, please, do share them in the comment box below. If you aren’t already starting to build your own hyperlocal news thing…
This is the third part of a series about the development of Hashbrum, the hyperlocal news project that me and some of my colleagues at the MA Online Journalism worked on for the last few months. If you haven’t already, read Part 1 and Part 2.
The HashBrum Stories
We tried to find stories that mattered to Birmingham’s communities. We had two successful running feature stories, one about Birmingham’s swimming pools, and another project still developing about cycling in the city, too many concert reviews, and a few one time stories using multimedia. Another interesting project was Marathon Guy, but it has been discontinued.
The most promising story for me in the beginning was the Swimming Pools investigation, conducted by Andrew Brightwell. The goal was to assess the state and conditions of the public pools of Birmingham, how they were fit to serve the local communities. It had a lot of multimedia and community potential: i thought about creating a map with Andrew with the location and history of each facility, create a space for the swimmers to have a say, and after the Moseley Road Baths tour, create a multimedia package. It didn’t happen, and it’s a shame the story got lost along the way.
Dan Davies has recently put a great effort in a investigation about the existing conditions for cyclists in Birmingham. If you know cyclists, you know they’re a good crowd to work a story with, and Dan has invested in a lot of video and map mashups, which he has been testing and developing, and that seem to be working quite well for the story.
The odd project, but one that took a lot of my time in production was Marathon Guy, a fun idea by Mikel Plana, that was a mix between a reality online show, a crowdsourced/crowdfunding enterprise, and a journalistic account about the communities of runners in the city. Unfortunately, Mikel is not taking the project further, but i think you can tell from the videos i had some fun with this project.
Other notable items in the HashBrum archive are Caroline Beavon’s liveblogging experiments, and a crowdsourced map, that she put together quite quickly.
And if in perspective it looks like a lot of work, i personally feel that we could have done much more, especially when it comes to interactive and multimedia narratives. Like i said before, HashBrum was supposed to be a canvas for total experimentation but then we got a lot of pics and text. But the moments i like the best are the ones when we go beyond that, and present information in a more relevant and compelling way. The traditional formats are traditional because they work, but if can break the rules and do something different just for the heck of it, why shouldn’t we?
This is where small hyperlocal websites are taking the lead from traditional media: they invest in new ways to tell the stories, in a cheap, fast way, without having to wait for slow IT departments to implement a damn widget on the front page, after having to wait for budget clearance; they rely in the power of the community, that they consider as their peers; they value the stories that mainstream media doesn’t care about, and can’t care about, because of the relevance for their reader’s universe and lack of staff; and they don’t have any problems in confronting the established powers, because the community’s problem are their problems too.
Hyperlocal is here to stay, and if you doubt that, just take a look at the map of hyperlocal websites in the UK, and see what others are doing. There’s a lot to be learned from there. I know I learned a lot from ours.
This is the second part of the story surrounding the creation and development of HashBrum (first part here). This bit will be more technical – not too much, though – and more interesting for those who want to create their own local news websites. I can tell you something: it’s not that hard, it’s not expensive, it’s never finished, and it will give you trouble. But if you are familiarized with your CMS of choice, then it won’t be that difficult.
Building the website
After spending a lot of time discussing what we should or should not do, we decided to build a website with some of the basic features we planned, and start from there, adapting and changing it along the way to better suit our needs, and see how the technology available would work for us.
I was in charge of the website construction, so most of the technical decisions were left to my consideration, although we agreed to use WordPress as a CMS, in a self hosted version. I offered server space that i already owned, and started working on the first version of the website. Don’t be surprised about WordPress, it’s a powerful platform, and i wonder why there aren’t more small newspapers investing in WP-powered websites. With a small investment they would benefit from a good platform. The other CMS that i used before for news websites was Joomla. If you know how to work with them, then you know that there’s a lot that can be done.
In a 16 hour straight site building marathon, I set the basic structure, design and main features for HashBrum. I went for a free template that I thought it would be easily customizable called Scarlett[i], and changed some CSS settings, and PHP. It already brought some plugins and original features that made me choose this specific template: the thumbnail carousel, editable areas for advertising that for me meant blank HTML fields, and a cascade on the right side. The possibility of placing a video next to the main content in the right column helped me to go for this theme. The main customization was the inclusion of a map on the upper part of the ‘body’ section, generated by the WPGeo plugin[ii] , that I learned about at Mindy MacAdams blog [iii].
We can never be thankful enough for the work some designers and coder make available for free. From the basic template to all of the plugins we didn’t have to spend a cent/penny. Just bought the domain and used some room on an already paid for server. I wish i could pay these guys for their work, since most are really enthusiastic about their projects, and some respond to your doubts quite fast. Kudos!
Now the blog had a content area and a map where we could pinpoint the news stories, and navigate to them. It wasn’t the most powerful interface but it was built overnight and it was simple to use, and we already had a place to put our stories up.
From the plugins that I added I’d like to highlight a few that provided extra features to the original structure (a longer list with links is available after the jump):
- ICS Calendar: this was a late addition to the site but it proved to be quite helpful and interesting. It presents a Google Calendar in a page, and the possibilities that we have if we make calendar open to user contribution are immense.
- Intense Debate: this is the most powerful commenting plugin available, it’s a shame we don’t get that many comments to take it to its fullest potential.
- Live Blogging (a Caroline Beavon’s request): since we were planning to cover some events live, I looked for a live blogging plugin. This one seemed to be the best one.
- Sociable: a social bookmarking plugin, for content sharing.
- SoJ Soundslides: to upload and embed Soundslides in posts.
There are other back office plugins, for security purposes in particular, like Akismet, Bad Behavior and Broken Link Checker. The most important part was that the website was ready to publish content; we just had to create it.
Decide with your team what will be the menu structure and categories needed. This is really important and if you don’t have a starting point you’ll have problems in the future trying to create a navigable website.
Major problems and some advice
The worst part is teaching others how to use the specificities of the template: how to place pics in the carousel, in the cascade, how to resize the video in the front page…so if you’re planning to do something like this, have someone to stay in control of the backend of the website, and someone else to substitute that person if not available. And people will mess up with the website when you are not looking.
The other part i find difficult is design. I’m not a designer, i wish i was good enough to do such a cool logo like we have. Another thing that failed has been the connection between the website and social networks, but that would mean a stronger effort from our part to manage an online community around HashBrum and its stories. Overall, the website has been working fine, i broke the CSS code once, that rendered the website unreadable, and had to spend a while to fix it (advice: backup every major change or group of changes you make).
And, of course, it’s not that powerful. We are restrained to the natural limits of the template options and plugin features. There’s nothing you can do about it, but there’s a lot you can do with it. Just keep trying. You can go for a different CMS, like Drupal or Joomla, that your problems will be the same – unless you’re a hard coder. Try to cope with your own and the platform’s limitations.
Before you start doing anything, be sure of what you want. You can always revert the process, you can always start again, and you will be learning in the process, but sometimes it’s just time wasted. It’s hard to have the responsibility to do something like this for a team of people, especially when you have to step in because the developer who was supposed to do the thing wasn’t available. And the worst part was i devoted so much time to the website i neglected the content creation, and i didn’t sign up to become a webmaster. Still, i’m proud of what was accomplished, and it’s good to see some of my colleagues taking the most of the features that i managed to enable for the, and for creating a space where we could all experiment, and for coming up with solutions when they were needed. And it’s what this type of work is all about.