Online only - for now

Local heroes

A report from the Press Gazette and Kingston University "Local Heroes" conference on 14 May 2010 - following up the NUJ London Freelance Branch "New Ways to make journalism pay" event in January.

ABOUT fifty people attended, in addition to the speakers. Most were in regional or local journalism, and there were quite a few academics from the host university. The day was packed - 15 speakers were organised into four sessions, plus four more in an end-of-day debate.

Key impressions/messages:

  • There is a great appetite for local news in local communities - the readers are there.
  • Publishers are using a range of different models from traditional weekly local papers to hyper-local community websites.
  • Some of the models dispense with editorial staff but many, probably most working in regional and local journalism recognise the importance of professional journalists.

William Perrins described how the ultra-local and similar sites cover detail local papers miss. But they don't generate advertising revenue - he earns his living training local communities to set up similar sites for Channel 4. He argued that low start-up costs and the wealth of volunteer labour among the community make such ultra-local sites very viable.

James Hatts "just about" earns a living from hyper-local London SE1, a community website which accompanies a monthly print publication, covering the areas in and around Borough. Half his income comes via Google Adsense, and the other half is generated by the commission local restaurants and bars pay for bookings made through the site.

Sheila Prophet, editor of, part of the local news network Neighbour Net, said that growth was incremental but that a new site could over time generate enough to pay for an editor. Neighbour Net's flagship site generates six figures.

Mike Dickerson of Community Times, a UK-wide network of 150 local magazines with an annual turnover of over £2 million, said the keys to success were direct marketing, relevance and asset ownership - all editors own their own businesses, paying CT a management fee.

James Mawer from media buying agency Oxbury Media Services pointed out there is a market for advertising in hyper-local magazines such as parish magazines. The annual spend by national advertisers is over £30 million a year.

James Morrison, senior lecturer at Kingston University, described how councils were becoming less transparent due to the decline in the independent reporting of their activities: 98 per cent of English councils now publish their own newspaper, paying salaries that can attract quality staff - a starting salary for a reporter on Hammersmith and Fulham is £33,994, compared to an average £12,000 on a local paper.

Tony Johnston, director of training at the Press Association, talked about the PA's pilot project in subsidised public service reporting. They would be lobbying for national funding once the pilot had run and been evaluated, he said.

Eric Gordon,Camden New Journal editor, said (in addition to what he said at the LFB conference), there were limits to citizen journalism as it took trained journos to "test the material".

In a rousing Churchillian speech, Sir Ray Tindle, proprietor of Tindle Newspapers, said he had not lost a paper or a journalist since launching his first title in 1945. He said the keys were keeping coverage absolutely local, and predicted that the tide was now turning for local papers.

Nigel Lowther described how he launched a new independent weekly, the Cleethorpes Chronicle in the teeth of the recession, and was now heading for a decent profit.

Betty Drummond, managing director of Champion Media, told a similarly inspiring tale of how her company had used the recession as an opportunity for expansion rather than contraction. It now has advertising revenues up 11 per cent year on year.

David Parkin of described his "fremium" (free and premium) model as he did at the LFBs event in January.

Wanja Oberhof from Berlin described how he pioneered Niiu, a personalised daily newspaper which now has nearly 5000 subscribers. The publication relies entirely on software to put together a digest of print and online sources, dispensing with journalists altogether.

Darren Thwaites, editor of the Evening Gazette describes how his network of ultra local websites covers its patch using both free community bloggers and a team of professional journalists.

Adam Westbrook, multi-media journalist talked about he dos and don'ts of using video for local news.

Like a lot of other attendees, I didn't have any brain space left for a heated debate...

  • There's more on Alex Klaushofer and Tim Dawson's blog on new models for delivering - and financing - quality journalism.
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