A lot of the talk about these new places has concentrated on ‘hyperlocals’. It’s an odd term – neatly summed up by Philip John here – that usually, perhaps even exclusively, refers to local blogs. Catherine, our CEO, also has thoughts on the term from a much more academic perspective that make interesting reading. As papers have retreated from towns and cities, cut back by firms faced with the spectre of declining ad revenues, these local blogs are being singled out by some as the saviours of local news.
Phil himself is involved in Russ Hawkes’ excellent Lichfield blog, which has become a vital source of information for many people in the town – while on the Isle of Wight the Ventnor Blog has carved out a niche with fantastic coverage of culture and local politics. But, while this kind of ‘hyper’-local blog is clearly helping to fill the hole left by local newspapers, they can’t be found in every town or city around the country – despite the fall of the local rag being an almost national phenomenon. Instead, our local news – or at least our desire for local contact and discussion – is being replaced in a far more fractured way.
Public-i is based in Brighton and my colleague here, Richard Scales, was until recently a resident in nearby Worthing. Worthing is a medium-sized town on the south coast of England – unremarkable unless you’re a retiree (it’s something of a Mecca for them) or a kitesurfer (its bay offers particularly good conditions, I’m told). But Worthing is also home to a rather surprising kind of local news source – one that might challenge our assumptions about the way that people will talk about local issues in the future.
The Worthing Page is, as the name perhaps suggests, a Facebook fan page. But it isn’t just a Facebook page – it’s a discussion board, a picture site – and a thriving business. Its creators are not only curating and generating local news, information and commentary, they’re helping to lead campaigns and building a following that many newspapers would find remarkably difficult to do – all at a much lower cost and with a more immediate response than any paper could hope for.
The page is buzzing with lively debates about important issues for Worthing residents – the kind of discussions a local paper might have tried hard to keep track of in its letters pages, but on Facebook the conversation can develop in a way no newspaper could ever hope to represent.
The Worthing Page isn’t alone – there are lots more Facebook pages dedicated to local areas, some of which are very well organised. Another brilliant example exists in Marsden near Huddersfield. But what makes The Worthing Page so interesting – at least to me – is that it clearly has aspirations to be supported commercially.
On its own website it has a media pack of sorts – informing potential advertisers about its metrics: the number of readers/users, the female-to-male split and the costs. I’m quite keen to find out a bit more about the people behind the site – and their hopes for it. But what is clear is that this kind of enterprise has one advantage over many local blogs that aspire to similar commercial sustainability: market. Facebook – with something like 27 million users in the UK – has a big immediate pool of potential users for the page. It’s a group that it’s easy to advertise to, attract and retain. It’s something local blogs, newspapers and local authorities – who need to know where their citizens are talking about them – need to keep in mind. I guess what’s important to remember is that these kinds of ventures – and communities – will start to appear in all sorts of places and in all sorts of ways.
Of course, there are disadvantages, too, to Facebook. It is a business itself – and because of the way it works it doesn’t offer all the flexibility and openness you get with a blog. Nor does it provide an RSS feed. Nonetheless, The Worthing Page is a brilliant example of how, in the right hands and with considerable imagination, Facebook can really be used to talk about your local area.