Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Future of News?

Last night I went to a great event: the Future of News West Midlands. It was organised by Philip John of the Lichfield Blog and inspired by the UK Future of News.

We heard a presentation by Andrew Brightwell on his hyperlocal blog Grounds, which was set up for the Colmore Row area of Birmingham, with the support of Urban Coffee Company. After his talk, we were asked to discuss the business models that could support news blogs.

The context for this discussion is the steady decline of local and regional newspapers and the increase in local news being provided by blogs such as Lichfield Blog, one of most vibrant I've read. The problem with news blogs being staffed by volunteers is they frequently have day jobs and are blogging in their spare time, yet they provide a valuable service to their communities.

We mooted various ideas as a group including advertising (which is difficult because you need someone to do a sales job), setting up syndication networks (difficult because who manages it all?) and selling journalistic skills for events (difficult because it takes a way time from writing news).

Two ideas I keep coming back to are: sponsorship by stakeholders and organisations paying to display content.

I think stakeholder organisations which would benefit from engaged communities should be (and possibly would be) happy to financially support local news blogs. At Wolverhampton Homes, we're happy to support the City Show because it is a fantastic event for the whole community and by supporting it we get publicity. I think a blog which scrutinises our work, engages our residents, reduces antisocial behaviour and encourages a community spirit is just, if not more, important as an annual show.

A great local blog in Wolverhampton is WV11 which is dedicated to the Wednesfield area. Run completely by volunteers, it provides regular news, events and information which our residents can access for free. The team behind it have a rigorous editorial policy, just as a newspaper would, because they know their credibility to visitors depends on it.

If a hyperlocal blog was to be sponsored by stakeholders it would need to make it clear that it wouldn't affect their editorial content. The stakeholders would have to respect the blogger's decisions and not seek to influence them at all. Admittedly this would depend on the type of relationship and the strength of the individuals' characters.

The other idea, of paying to submit content, is a route 24dash have gone down. 24dash is a public sector news website where organisations pay an annual subscription charge to be able to upload a certain amount of posts each month. They make it clear that organisations pay for uploading content so that visitors know the context of what they're reading.

Judging by 24dash's steady expansion over the past three years (it launched a monthly magazine 24housing a couple of years ago), it seems to be a model that is working for them.

Both business models have their flaws but in the right situation could work. The conclusion our group came to was that there is not one answer to the problem. Instead small news blogs will need to experiment with a variety of revenue streams depending on their community, sector and circumstances. It's an exciting, if slightly scary, time to be looking to the future of news.

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