Guardian local:Failed experiment?

Lets get this hyperlocal stuff back to London. Just don't get any on your hands (via Wikipedia)

In short. No and credit for trying.

I was frustrated by much of the twitter chat around the announcement that Guardian local was no more. The insinuation seemed to be that this was a failed experiment. I tweeted that no experiment is a failure.

So it’s good to hear that the Guardian:

have also learned from the local communities who got involved with telling their stories. And using this we have continually refined our approach over the past year.

But it’s scary to hear

One of the guiding principles of the local blogs has been dialogue with communities about situations and topics of mutual interest and concern. There will still be plenty of that on guardian.co.uk – for example, in our growing army of local cutswatchers, monitoring local council activities – but we felt, in that spirit, that we should share the thinking behind the local experiment with you, the readers who have been involved all along

‘We value the community so much that we want to bring it all in to one place’. It’s trying to take community out of the community.’ Thanks for allowing us to experiment on you but we’re back off to London now. We’ll call you when we need you!’

But I’m trying not to be parochial about this and dismiss it as the Guardian cementing the London centric nature of their broader community offering. (Who wants to be a member of the ‘Guardian club’ (the touchy feely response to the paywall argument) if there is no room for local communities? But, hey, I did see a masterclass in Manchester.)

No,  I’m sure that the Guardian has learned loads and will see the benefit. I’m sure they understand how to run a crowd now. I’m sure they see the value in having someone on the ground. They must see the potential of new technology in having faster, targeted and responsive journalism. It even strengthened their brand – albeit in a passive way.

So a lot for the Guardian to be proud of. But any the failure of any experiment comes from how you use the results not the experiment itself. And they’ll fail if they take the results and don’t keep the hyperlocal team.

Relationships matter

Talking to community managers from the small hyperlocals to the big players like Propublica it’s clear that there is real value in the experience of handling a crowd at grass roots. I’m sure that Hannah, John and Michael have that in spades. I never met John and Michael but did meet Hannah. She is whip smart. I’ve no reason to assume that John and Michael are any different because Sarah, who drove the project, is planet-size smart when it comes to this stuff. To lose them would be a bad fail.

The truth is that the value of the Guardian local communities rests with them; their work and their relationship building. The unique nature of each area can’t be homogenised in to a broad model. The people who are upset to see the sites go didn’t have a relationship with the Guardian – the Guardian is the bastard that broke their relationship up!  You can’t just transplant the Guardian Cardiff model anywhere. You could put Hannah or John or Michael anywhere and they’d use that experience. But you might also lose some of their passion and, with the best will in the world, there would be little or no reason for their Guardian Local audiences to follow them.

That’s why I stand by my belief that hyperlocal is not a model that large media organisations can ever get right.

I wanted the Guardian to prove me wrong and for a while they did. They let the hyperlocals have an identity and quietly absorbed the experience.Yes!  Then they went and blew it by acting like the Guardian rather than letting the sites speak for themselves and standing by their belief “that journalism plays a vital role in communities”

Update: A great storify from Sarah on the closure – the tweets alone show what people feel about the move.

More updates: Rick Waghorn, whose Addiply system was used for ads on the local sites, is very nice in saying I was one of the people who ‘get’ the biggest lesson to learn from the saga. Shucks!  Tom Allen has a good post about the response to the closure including the start of fundraising efforts to try to take the guardian up on their offer of partnership. I was surprised that the Guardian only considered this ‘after’ the closure announcement rather than seeing it as part of the exit strategy. But the support is showing and efforts to find ways to fund the sits are underway. Matt Edgar suggests using Guardian subscriptions to pay - don’t subscribe to the Guardian any more, subscribe to hyperlocal. I’m sure the loss of subscriptions was not in the Guardians mind when they closed the site.

 The Media briefing also picks up on the this thread as Ed Oldfied looks at how the story developed and what happens next. There are some interesting facts and figures in the post but it does rest of the word failed again! A point that is picked up in an addition to the post:

It is worth pointing out that while the business model of these sites was unproven and ultimately unviable, the publishing model from a content perspective was a success – as proven by the outpouring of anger from readers in Leeds, Edinburgh and Cardiff, and the awards and accolades the three beatbloggers gathered.

Sarah Hartley, who led the project, doesn’t agree with Ed’s analysis and “takes exception to the term ‘failed’”, preferring to describe the project as “halted, stopped, concluded”.

I agree.

8 thoughts on “Guardian local:Failed experiment?”

  1. Andy,

    I think that you’re final comment that hyperlocal is something the big organisations will never get right is spot on.

    I am disapppointed that Guardian Media has decided to abandon this experiment.I obviously don’t know how the figures stacked up but it’s a sad say when a newspaper with the ethos of the Guardian decides to abandon what must surely have been an inexpensive exercise compared to some of their other investments such as I believe expanding into America.

    I am probably more concerned for the signals,rightly or wrongly that this sends out.Is the commercial model of niche publishing workable,or even is it that people are not that concerned about what is going on on their doorstep on a scale that makes it commercially viable?

    So where does this leave the model? Back in the arms of a monopoly of other large media players or do we wait for the arrival of the Huffington Post to save us all?

    1. Maybe the US expansion is the new direction – post hyperlocal. A move to an entirely different market rather than just a market sector. Just as crazy as a paywall or any other attempts to save newspapers :)

      It would be a shame if the Guardian had any sway in peoples view of the viability of hyperlocal – for or against. So when you ask “Is the commercial model of niche publishing workable” I just don’t think the Guardian experience is relevant.

      Yes they may have felt it couldn’t pay its way (i don’t know) but thats measured against the internal business at the Guardian. In other words, for their business model, perhaps they couldn’t make it pay enough.

      I still think that for individuals or groups of people who get together an develop a hyperlocal offering that could sustain itself financially at a local level.

      Would that be a model? maybe. We aren’t there yet. But my feeling would be that to try and establish a model is to essentially plant to try and grow it beyond the size of the audience. Then it ceases to be viable (that’s one lesson we can learn from newspapers)

      Why do you need a model anyway?

      I would be bullish about it. Hyperlocal can’t be done by big media. Full stop. Let the committed community do it. They have everything to learn and the benefits to explore with none of the baggage.

  2. This is an interesting post. I write for a few local sites in Edinburgh – including The Guardian, as it goes – but as far as I am aware they are largely sustained by funding applications and the work of volunteers. A couple are trying to work out ways of making money out of it with advertising etc, but nobody seems to have found a model that is sustainable in the long term. If a way to make money can’t be found, won’t trained journalists lose interest – out of a need to pay the rent if nothing else? At which point hyperlocal becomes the province of volunteers only.

    The Guardian blog is good because it’s professional, well designed, and certainly in Edinburgh has been used very effectively to point people in the direction of other hyperlocal sites that don’t have the same stats the Graun brand commands. But even then you get the impression they haven’t really been supported by the main paper or website – as someone said in the comments on Meg Pickard’s article, when did you ever see a link to a beatblog story on the Guardian homepage. They were building up an audience by networking with the local community just as independent hyperlocal sites have to do.

    My main gripe with them bailing on local is that they knew from the outset that they weren’t going to make any money out of it, but they went ahead anyway. And now that they have the beginnings of something very good, which given time might even persuade you that big media can do hyperlocal, they pull the plug. Whatever they say about it being a two year project, those sites have only been live for just over 12 months. That’s not much of an experiment into sustainability.

    1. Thanks for the insight.

      I can’t argue that the involvement of the Guardian adds a certain kudos to the content and I’m sure the backroom support made a qualitative difference to the experience of those involved. It was nice to see a lot of that used in the promotion of local content and content producers. I agree with your point about the 12 months as well. A lot more could have come from a little more time at, I suspect, not much more cost.

      I think your point about the attractiveness for journalists is an interesting one. In one way I get your point – why would a journalist work for a hyperlocal website when they might not get paid. It’s a fair point. But that’s not really the main aim of a hyperlocal in my view.

      If a journo gets involved with a hyperlocal site its often because

      a) they start it and are publisher and journo
      b) they get involved because they are committed to the community

      In both cases I think that says more about their community commitment than it does that they are a journo (journos are citizens too). In that respect, unlike the Guardian, hyperlocal doesn’t need to attract journalists to work.

      You may be right, ultimately some hyperlocals may be run by volunteers making enough to cover costs of hosting etc. That will be a model that works for them. It won’t be the only model but it may work.

      Thats why I keep coming back to this point about hyperlocal not being a solution for big journalism. It can’t sustain what we expect journalism to be. It also can’t be the fallback for employing journos. The big players have to change the expectations or admit that.

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