The hyperlocal landgrab

Who will come out on top in the coming battle between new and old media over hyperlocal news?

If the rhetoric is to be believed, hyperlocalism is the most promising trend the digital age has brought journalism. There are now hundreds of websites around the country, bringing local communities unpredented levels of news gathered by newly-empowered citizen journalists. With their scrutiny of the local and celebration of the particular, it's tempting to see hyperlocals as a new form of democratic journalism driven by a synergy between readers and writers.

For media-watchers looking for an answer to journalism's money troubles, hyperlocalism may provide the beginnings of some reasons to be cheerful. It shows, at least, that there is still an appetite for local news, prompting the hope that where there is demand, money must follow.

But a bit dig deeper, and a different story emerges. Most hyperlocals are run by volunteers and activists - a feature which, according to evangelists like William Perrin and Networked Neighbourhoods, is part of their beauty. But it's not a recipe for sustainability. The husband-and-wife-team behind the award-winning Ventnor Blog admit to "constantly wondering how they're living" despite running a site that's become central to life on the Isle of Wight since it started five years ago.

Meanwhile, Tony Wallely, the founder of Pits n Pots, the hyperlocal known for its hard-hitting coverage of Stoke on Trent, says the site's development has run aground on the problem of monetisation. Even possible counter-example start-up the Preston blog, which has been notably successful in securing grant funding from NESTA, is hardly a model that could be widely replicated by others.

The common thread running through all these cases suggests an unpalatable possibility: it could it be that what we're seeing is a movement with a limited life-span rather than the emergence of a new form of grassroots journalism.

The developing relationship between the grassroots hyperlocals and their bigger counterparts provides an indication of the direction things could take. Last summer, Trinity Mirror announced the launch of a network of hyperlocals working "in partnership" with established sites like the Lichfield blog. In exchange for allowing Trinity Mirror sites to feature their material on their sites, contributing hyperlocals get to showcase their work and be properly credited.

The deal is symptomatic of the way the big media organisations are responding to the hyperlocal conundrum, reluctant to let such a promising new media trend pass them by, yet unwilling to invest much in something that isn't profitable. Northcliffe, Trinity Mirror and the Guardian all have modest hyperlocal operations, and it's likely to be a while before they get any return for their investment. "It's going to take a long time. Whether they'll have the patience, I don't know," says Sean Kelly, founder-director of NeighbourNet, the UK's only fully commerical hyperlocal operation.

It's hard, with the row about the Huffington Post profiting out of unpaid bloggers and aggregated content rumbling on, not to see an element of parasitism in the big media companies' relationship with community-based hyperlocals. Neither Trinity Mirror nor Guardian Local, which shares a similar model, are thieving copy, as publishers have to sign up for the deal. (There are examples of outright theft in hyperlocal land: earlier this year MyVillage.com had to take down content it had posted without permission, while PitsnPots' Wallely claims his stories are frequently used, without attribution, by mainstream media organisations.) It's possible, further down the line, to see weary community publishers selling to big players seeking aggregation.

While everyone eagerly awaits hyperlocalism's moment at the bank, it's worth keeping an eye on the States, which is ahead of the UK in the new-models-for-journalism-game. This week it emerged that Twitter co-founder Biz Stone is to join Huffington Post to develop a platform for community journalism, fuelling suspicions of a new media strategy based on free content now, profit later. The chief exec of local news aggregator Topix recently observed that - with a resurgence in local advertising now taking digital form - a land-grab is underway in hyperlocal media. So - to transplant the western analogy here - if the big media companies are the cowboys and the grassroots hyperlocals the Indians, what will happen when the landgrab comes here?