South of the River – Amateur Hour

I discovered at a meeting this week that the term ‘hyperlocal’ is on its way out. I think that’s a shame.

I realise that most of you reading this didn’t even know that the term ‘hyperlocal’ was a thing, so I’d better explain. If I asked you what ‘local media’ meant to you I’m guessing the Yorkshire Evening Post, Radio Leeds and Look North would be the most common answers. A few of you might also include South Leeds Life – bless you.

As with so much in life, it’s all a question of geography. Local has come to mean cities, counties and regions. So, and I think some of you are ahead of me here, hyperlocal means neighbourhoods or postcodes. I don’t know who coined the term, but it describes what South Leeds Life does very well. As I tell people endlessly, we only cover LS10 and LS11.

To me hyperlocal implies a lot more than a physical boundary and it’s certainly not a limiting factor. Covering a small area gives you the chance to write about what’s happening at grassroots level and to connect with people about the issues that they really care about.

There’s nothing new about this way of reporting. Local newspapers always used to have their ‘beat reporters’. They had a patch and were told to go and get to know it, make contacts, speak to people, check noticeboards – go and find the local news. The internet changed all that.

People have got used to getting their news for free online. That means they won’t buy a newspaper and publishers have decided that to protect their profit margins they must sack journalists. The few remaining staff don’t have to time to get out of the office so they gather their news by, yes, the internet.

But the internet also opened up publishing to anyone who wanted to have a go. The entry costs are precisely zero. When South Leeds Life started in 2010 we didn’t spend any money at all. I think in the first two years we didn’t spend more than £100 and that was just to buy our domain name and block adverts that we weren’t getting paid for.

We spend more than that now, but nothing like the costs of printing the monthly newspaper. Although putting a hyperlocal online doesn’t cost money, it does cost time. It relies on volunteers giving up their time to gather the news, write it up and to manage the site.

This brings me onto the issue of amateur vs professional. And this is probably where I diverge from other local independent news publishers. I like amateur. Not in the sense of being a bit rubbish, but opening up the media to local people with something to say.

The news in South Leeds Life is not written by professional journalists, but it is written by experts. People on South Leeds Life write about what they know – their club, their issue with parking, their history, their community centre.

When we started we were pretty pure about that, but as we’ve grown we have evolved. When a hundred people a month are reading your articles you can get away with amateur meaning a bit rubbish. By the time we had built our audience to 30,000 a month, we had to be more responsible.

I was at the meeting to discuss the setting up of a national body for what we must now call local independent news publishers because we want South Leeds Life to be seen to be, if not more professional, more proficient. We want people to know that we know what we are doing, we are properly constituted, have policies and procedures – a complaints procedure in particular in the light of Leveson and Section 40. We also want access to the new Local Democracy Reporter scheme being set up by the BBC, which was also on the agenda.

But in all this we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. If we stop being open to local people who want to write their own story we will have lost something very precious and something that sets us apart from the professional local media.

I’ll be on back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.