Ten things learned from five years running a hyperlocal site

Posted: April 16th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Journalism | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

In January the hyperlocal site I run for the city of Preston, Lancashire turned five years old. Starting the site has definitely been one of the defining moments of my life to date and a few months into our fifth year I thought I would reflect on what I have learned after five years of keeping Blog Preston alive.

It is now a Community Interest Company which has a stated aim of covering community news in Preston. Paid up, registered and got a company number. What started as a Sunday afternoon New Years resolution is an actual real existing thing. Not just virtual. We have three directors, including me, and about ten regular contributors plus a few more who contribute as hoc. Plus a friend of mine doing ad sales on commission.

Establish your reason
Setting out to post once or twice a day it soon became clear this wasn’t going to be enough. The demands of running a local site will eat into your time, there is no escaping it. To ensure you don’t get sucked into a hamster wheel content cycle you need to have a clear idea of where your site covers and what it covers.

Know your mantra and keep to it, if you set out to be providing breaking news then stick to it and if you only said you’d cover a certain area of the city then keep to that.

Define your geography
With Blog Preston we are very strict about where we cover. The city limits of Preston is our boundary, plus we will go down into Penwortham and Walton le Dale which sit within touching distance of Preston with just the River Ribble between them. We regularly don’t cover events or news happening only a little further afield. Why? It creates an expectation for our audience and means we would need to spread ourselves thinly for covering our core area.

Obsess about analytics, but don’t dwell
We do a monthly stats report for our contributors. It shows how many unique visitors and page views we has, plus how much of our audience was made up of returning visitors. We also flag out ten of the most popular posts. We also compare our performance against last year. We have started using Google Real Time to see which content is performing well and using this to guide what we do more of. Each of us only has a finite amount of time each month they can contribute so we want to make sure what we do has impact.

Establish your network
Hyperlocal often gets banded about as being something new, but many things are consistent with good, solid, local journalism. Build your contacts and be prepared to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining what the site is, why it exists and who you are. We don’t have the 100+ years of local news reporting attached to our brand that other local media organisations have. That is a curse and a blessing in equal measure.

Get super organised
You are on your own here, no one is going to tell you how to run a hyperlocal site. We tend to have three or four days worth of stories written in advance, and we slot breaking and timely content in around this content schedule. Why? Partly so we don’t go to bed at night with the fear of nothing newsworthy happening tomorrow so we would have nothing to post and also why not? We decide when to post content based on when our audience will consume it and also so every now and again we can have a weekend where we spend more time with our loved ones and less time with WordPress.

Get a Google calendar, put events in it. Note down when the next stage of something happened. Build the calendar so you always have things to write about or put out social media updates about.

Social media is your super-charged weapon
Yes, you are ploughing on in WordPress and posting til your eyes bleed but what is the point if no one is reading it? I increasingly spend as much time scheduling Facebook posts, responding to comments, scheduling tweets, replying to tweets and other social activity around a story as I do writing stories. Why? Well a) we don’t have anyone dedicated to social media and b) it is a big measure of our success, a story can do good views but it is important it is getting out there on Facebook and Twitter. We have no marketing budget, our content says everything about us and we have to get into Prestonians social feeds.

It means we are relevant and you know if you are providing real community news if you see the community responding.

Start slow, and build
We’ve had five years of doing Blog Preston and there are still plenty of things we would like to be able to do. But we don’t sweat it, we focus on our core things – getting enough content to stay a few days ahead of our schedule, community news and social media and anything else we get to do is a bonus,

Mobile is the future
Combined with social media’s prominence as a majority traffic referred you will also see a shift to your audience accessing on mobiledevices. This could be seen as a challenge for hyperlocal providers, but if you are using a system like WordPress you can turn your site into a responsive device one just by searching the WordPress theme store. Don’t ignore this, as if your site doesn’t display well on a small screen device it might survive a while but as consumers become more demanding you will stuck with a majority desktop audience. Blog Preston already gets more than half of its readers on a phone or tablet device, and it is a challenge we will be addressing in the coming weeks.

Don’t let the money drag you down
It depends why you started the site. We don’t have a proper commercial pressure to make the site work, but what I have learned is that no one is going to give you any money until you have proved yourself. In the last two years we have shown audience growth and reliability in publishing to our Preston audience and in turn advertisers. We now have something credible to take to local businesses and explain why they should invest their pounds in us. And anything we make ensures we can continue to serve Preston with community news.

But recognise your failings, I convinced a friend to do some ad sales for us and it has seen results – the other two options of me doing it or just waiting (hoping) for local businesses to contact you are not realistic options. I write all this from the perspective of someone who does not need Blog Preston to be a success to pay my mortgage. If I did then this section may take a different outlook.

Don’t get too serious
We cover the best and worst of what Preston has to throw at the world. And sometimes it is tough, but take heart in knowing that thousands of people see what we write every day on their various sized screens. Five years ago there was a vacuum for this content to be produced, we have filled it, and we have fun doing it.

On Saturday we will be down at the Lancashire Market taking photos, tweeting, running a live blog and maybe sampling a giant Scotch egg.

Some may call that work, we call it being part of the community we cover. And that is my big message, build your contacts and relationships offline to help you create something which works online.

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