There has already been a lot written online (but perhaps not surprisingly, not that much in the mainstream press) about the demise of AOL’s 6-year, $300m hyperlocal project, Patch.
At its height, Patch was a network of around 900 websites across the USA, employing 1,400 people.
As the New York Times put it earlier this month, the theory was that Patch would use a single news person and a single advertising person to create a “digital maypole” in hundreds of communities at a cost of about $100,000 annually per site.
Commentators say the project was defeated by a “tyranny of small numbers” – lack of local advertising revenue to sustain the journalism.
So, does it mean the pre-teen community journalism project in the UK is already heading for an early grave?
Not if you look at this month’s joint report by the Carnegie Trust and Co-operatives UK into the future of community news, which found that despite the “pervasive pessimism” over the state of local news coverage – largely because of the profit-taking evacuation from the sector and systematic closure of scores of town centre newspaper offices by the large proprietors – there is still a strong appetite for local news. They believe that a co-operative ownership model, similar to that used on projects which have allowed local pubs, grocers and small, specialists shops to re-open, could also bring a new lease of life to local media through community buy-outs and take-overs of those newspaper offices.
How would that work in practice?
Here’s just one way of looking at it.
A new project in Edinburgh’s Bruntsfield to fund a community-based greengrocer which would supply locally grown, preferably organic, produce to the local area is hoping to raise £30,000 by next March to get the Dig-In shop up and running.
Underlying the project is the long-term aim of improving the local economy by reconnecting residents, local schools and businesses with the food they eat, as well as providing an outlet for local veg producers and challenging the dominance of the retail giants, such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s.
Now, one of the lessons which commentators warn we all need to learn from the Patch experiment is that no top-down model drawn up in a corporate head office is going to be of any use to a community journalist and her/his adversiting co-worker as they try to find a sustainable way of making (digital, hopefully) local news work in their own town, village, housing scheme or neighbourhood.
So, it is important to take great care in making recommendations about financial models for a new wave of community-owned media and journalism in the UK.
However, there are some hints of sources of potental funding for some community journalism operations, if they can find a way of linking themselves financially to the community not just by publishing local news, investigating local issues and providing an outlet for local voices to tell their own stories. And media training might be at the centre of it, alongside co-operative ownership.
Research last year by City University New York suggested that local news sites might find a source of revenue in training and advice to local small businesses, rather than just seeking out traditional advertising.
“As smartphones and tablets proliferate, consumers are spending more and more time online. Many small businesses, however, are not keeping pace. For a number of reasons, they are simply not taking full advantage of the numerous online marketing opportunities that are available. As a result, we see an opportunity for local sites to position themselves as “digital agencies,” not simply media companies, by offering a “suite of services” to small businesses. The desired result, of course, is that a business improves its online marketing efforts (and thereby increases sales), and that the local site develops a source of revenue beyond traditional ad sales.”
Meeting community and media activists in various places around Scotland over the last month as part of my new job with MediaTrust has shown that there is as the Carnegie Trust and Co-Operatives UK found, a strong appetite for local news.
As one community worker in Edinburgh told me: “There are lots of questions but plenty of will to make it happen.
“We just need to figure out the ‘how’”.