The Guardian Cans Its ‘Unsustainable’ Local Websites

Guardian News & Media is ending the project it launched in 2010 to try and figure out the future of local journalism.

“Unfortunately, while the blogs have found engaged local readerships and had good editorial impact, the project is not sustainable in its present form,” writes the publisher’s digital engagement head Meg Pickard. “So, over the next month or so, we’re going to be winding down the Cardiff, Leeds and Edinburgh blogs and retiring the local project.”

Despite selling the regional news division it already owned, GMG had used the Guardian Local project to try finding a new model for online-only local journalism. It hired one “beatblogger” for each of three local sites, headed by Sarah Hartley.

Unchained by the difficult-to-transition machinery of conventional, industrialised news publishing, the blogs have focused on metropolitan civic engagement. They have noticeably enriched the communities of which they are part, finding a new, younger, online audience that wasn’t necessarily reading news about its local community and have helped make connections between people, events, organisations and local issues and politics. Some readers on Twitter and on comments have been expressing their dismay.

But Guardian Local was always an experiment. It survived GNM’s big restructure of 2010, but there was little commercial model of any heft on which it could stand on its own two feet – no significant foray in to dedicated local ad sales, just a city-specific feed of Soulmates dates and, later, small local adds supplied via the Addiply service. It’s understood these £10-a-week small ads made the sites just £500 per year in total.

Despite years of talk, hyperbole and failed experiments in “hyperlocal” journalism, which has been championed by many including the Guardian Local staff, there remain few concrete examples of formalised such efforts becoming commercially sustainable. In the latest re-emergence of the hyperlocal hype curve, some pundits have even been pitching the paradigm to journalism students as the rock-star, enterprise-journalism career to seek out, in an industry where graduate job vacancies have dried up.

GNM’s decision may be one more indication that there is no future for industrialised “hyperlocal” journalism. At least its staff were salaried, trained professionals. But the publisher says it will “integrate communities and topics into our wider site coverage wherever possible” and versions of the idea live on through sites like Northcliffe Media’s LocalPeople, networks like AOL’s Patch, Scotland’s good-looking STV Local and the imminent new UK government-sanctioned local TV network.

Some consolation to the faithful – GNM is also aiming to secure its future at the international, not local, level, by courting a U.S. audience to sell as advertiser scale,

Meanwhile, the many independent, volunteer-run hyperlocal blogs which had already existed prior to each of these exponents will go on publishing, perhaps buoyed by the qualitative, if not commercial, success of Guardian Local.

Disclosure: Our publisher ContentNext is a wholly owned subsidiary of Guardian News & Media.