Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
5 mins read

3 ways publishers are experimenting with hyperlocal news

Even as we see growth in newspaper subscribers, there’s a perception that it is mainly national titles that have benefited. This is true in the case of the US, where The New York Times and The Washington Post account for more than half of all online news subscriptions. Some local and regional publishers worry readers will reach subscription fatigue before they are ever willing to pay for local news.

However, we have seen success stories in local media, with a just-released report from Reuters highlighting how local publishers have succeeded with subscription strategies in Europe. We have also seen success in the US, with a report last year showcasing how the Star Tribune has managed to become the 5th biggest newspaper in circulation in the US while being located in only the 16th largest metro market.

So what has helped these local publishers succeed? It is the focus on actually local journalism that is most important. We have seen in the past how local publishers try to compete through the breadth of content, bringing all the top stories readers should know, rather than through depth of content by covering local stories in detail.

The evidence that audiences are unwilling to pay for local news is actually clouded by the fact that most local news is not local at all.

Rachel Davis Mersey, journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin

That’s why some publishers have gone all in on hyperlocal strategies, ensuring they are reaching audiences that are not served by quality journalism otherwise. Today we are exploring 3 ways publishers are experimenting with hyperlocal products, from Germany (Neue Westfälische), to Canada (Toronto Star), to Sweden (Bonnier News Local).

Neue Westfälische: hyperlocal social network

Today many towns have Facebook groups to share information with other residents. However there is often limited moderation (or in the case of my hometown, too much moderation so a “real life” group was set up to allow people to complain which ultimately ended up overtaking the original group), and false information is able to quickly spread.

To be able to balance the spread of local information with informed reporting, Neue Westfälische in Germany partnered with Lokalportal. Founded in 2014, this startup aims to serve local communities so partnering with the local newsrooms of Neue Westfälische was a logical next step.

We’re trying to build a hybrid between a local newspaper and a local social network. We learned hyperlocal life is more than just the exchange; it’s ‘I want to know what’s going on and perhaps I can participate in it’…

Sebastian Penthin, Lokalportal founder

Anyone can read content on Lokalportal by just giving a zip code, but in order to actually participate, readers need to verify their identity via text or mail. All users need to use their real names to comment, which has also helped keep a level of civility in the discussions.

This partnership has helped the newspaper reach a younger group, with an average age of 35. This has helped the platform become attractive to advertisers, the main business model for now. Smaller local businesses appreciate knowing they are reaching local residents only and not having to figure out how to set up their local targeting on other social platforms.

The benefits of the partnership between Neue Westfälische and Lokalportal go beyond monetary, with Neue Westfälische able to better build relationships with readers. Audience members can become contributors and can see the impact their comments have on original reporting. For example, when a poll showed readers wanted more parking spaces, a reporter was able to take this data to the city council and create a team of community members and city council members to fulfill the community’s need for more parking space.

Local and regional news is of particular importance in Germany, where a report this week shows regional newspapers were the most quoted this year. It’s not the first time we have seen a hyperlocal social media strategy in Germany, the latest chapter in our Reinventing Digital Editions research series explored how SüdKurier leveraged their Facebook groups to ensure they were covering each community with valuable content. We have also seen this strategy reach the US, with Wick Communications receiving funding from Google to establish a curated neighborhood social media platform for two target markets.

Toronto Star: 10 new hyperlocal brands in 1 year

Similarly, Toronto Star has benefited from funding by Google’s News Initiative Innovation Challenge which was used to launch10 new hyperlocal brands this year. Taking the form of apps and websites, these 10 community engagement hubs are digital-only, with no print product.

Taking an ‘app-first approach‘, the Toronto Local initiative intends to create a new platform to deliver full local news in a scalable and sustainable way. They chose to start with 10 communities to be able to learn and improve as they launch new communities in 2021.

Local news is very challenged and it keeps disappearing. Our objective is to find a new way that we can create a wonderful local experience in communities that is highly relevant and maybe slightly different than what we do today.

Pam Laycock, senior vice president of transformation and strategy at Torstar

The business model is focused on advertising now, leveraging the highly localized audiences. However in the future a subscription strategy is part of the plan. This year the goal has been to show there is a quick and cost-effective way to start up in new markets, which has indeed been successful. The team has seen app downloads grow steadily in the new markets. This sets them up well to grow further next year.

Bonnier News Local: leveraging AI to cover hyperlocal stories

When Bonnier News Local (previously known as MittMedia) was exploring which articles were best for converting new subscribers, they found it wasn’t the in-depth investigations they had expected, but instead local stories were best converting new subscribers. In order to ramp up their local coverage, the team has leveraged “AI journalists” to cover a variety of topics including real estate and local sports.

In order to cover more real estate stories, Bonnier News Local has a bot that reports on houses that have recently been built or sold. This bot writes a short text on every house that is sold in their local markets, identifying an interesting angle (such as the most expensive house sold in the year) and adding an image from Google Streetview. This is a fully automated process, as the names of buyers are a matter of public record in Sweden. Content from this bot has helped convert several hundred new paying subscribers, and it is also often the most consumed content by existing subscribers.

Ultimately robots will not replace human journalists, however there is value is using robots to allow journalists to focus on what they do best. Robots can help free up journalists to work on more interesting and complex stories, while also allowing for hyperlocal news coverage, such as local high school sports.

Going further than simply reporting on the final score of local sports, they now have a bot that sends a text message to the local coach or a star member of the team asking a set of questions. When the person responds, that quote gets added to the article, which helps to give more flavor and a sense of the game.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe

Original content republished with permission of Twipe