Hyperlocal news in Denmark: one editor's experiences

For a guest post for the Online Journalism Blog, I invited Henriette Pilegaard, Editor (citizen journalism and social media) for JydskeVestkysten to talk about her experiences of setting up a hyperlocal news network in Denmark.

2008: Citizen Journalism

In January 2008, while changing the techical platform behind JV.DK to one with web 2.0 possibilities, JydskeVestkysten moved into citizen journalism.

In an outdoor and in-media campaign citizens were invited to register on JV.DK to write and upload photos from their area, corresponding to the local editions of the newspaper.

This initiative certainly attracted attention in the Danish media world – only the expectations of our editorial leaders were set a bit too high. They hoped for a quick 500 citizen journalist-produced articles each week. After the first eight months 2,500 were registered, delivering 25-30 articles per day. Now the number of registered users is reaching 5,000, and the number of articles is still the same.

Some areas clearly have had more success than others. What works appears to be nursing citizen journalists by response, personal meetings and – not least – occasionally printing their articles or even “real” journalists picking up and developing their ideas.

This costs manpower. As many before have discovered and some are still learning: building the online machinery is not enough; it doesn’t run by itself.

Who are the citizen journalists? Studies show that they are a broad section of the population. Many write to promote their hobby- or sport clubs in which they invest volunteer work; many are local activists who write to promote their local area, to show the amount of activity, the experience of living in little towns or villages in rural areas.

This urge is strengthened by the fact that in 2007 Denmark went through a structural reform reducing local government from 271 to 98 units. These days the big debate in the national media is what to do about dying rural areas: should, for instance, some villages with large numbers of empty houses be bulldozed?

The focus on hyperlocal

Against this background the editorial leaders set in place a new strategy concentrating the citizen journalism effort on hyperlocal sites.

I – a journalist and citizen journalist manager at the Soenderborg (population 77,000) office – was placed in a brand new position as an overall editor of citizen journalism in November last year. The role was primarily focused on organising the opening of ten hyperlocal sites this spring. The tenth opened Monday, May 10 (pins on the map link to hyperlocal sites – others are “ordinary” citizen journalism).

The software behind JV.DK is Xoops, and this open source-material is also used to build the in-house, home-made platform for our hyperlocal sites. So this is done with very little cost.

The main costs of the project are my position and supposedly 8-15 working hours a week spent by local community managers (journalists) in each of our 9 offices.

The goal of the strategy is not directly to make income, but to strengthen the newspaper brand by building goodwill. We help local communities increase their visibility, to organize themselves into communicating and promoting their area and even to go into action on political topics like closing of  schools.

Of course we hope to make people spend less time on Facebook etc. and more time on JV.DK, which will make it easier to sell ads. Also we aim to introduce micro self-service ads on the hyperlocal sites.

The market

As with most newspapers, the daily Danish regional newspaper JydskeVestkysten has for decades been steadily losing readers and subscribers (now 64,000 copies).

On the other hand, the website of the newspaper, JV.DK, has been rapidly growing in user numbers – a pleasant fact which in no way makes up for the income lost from subscribers or – the latest blow – advertisers holding back because of the financial crisis.

We’re keeping above the surface, but every little expense is being spared. Last spring 11 editorial jobs were cut, less than 2 years after the previous reduction.

Luckily the editorial leaders of the house don’t lack visions – as long as they don’t demand great investments.

Other hyperlocal sites have been rolled out in Denmark within the last few years. Among them www.dinby.dkwww.lokalia.dk and www.lokus.dk. They all find it very hard to get the expected amount of user involvement and user generated material, even though they have much better platforms with a – maybe confusing – range of functionality.

Our advantage is that our news brand is very settled and highly rated in terms of credibility, our first goal is not commercial, which it clearly is on the other hyperlocal sites; and we have local offices with known journalists who are there to guide, help and respond to the citizen journalists who register to the hyperlocal site.

Get organised

My experience so far is that it is crucial to get the local people well organized. To get local volunteer managers of the hyperlocal site to arrange workshops to overcome technical issues and to do follow ups.

This is certainly a new kind of a job to a journalist, sometimes a hard one to sell to highly educated colleagues who are used to being alone in the market, sovereignly deciding which stories to work with and when.

I’ll admit they don’t queue up to be local community mangers, but I sense that some of them are learning to like it and even become fascinated with the web 2.0-possibilities in regaining contact with the readers.

Another hard part is working with a home-made system which has its faults and bad days, relying on developers who don’t really have the capacity and have to put tasks between other assignments.

Going forward

This fall we expect to transfer all community and citizen journalism content on to a new and separate platform which provides the possibility of tagging in more dimensions, and a range of extra functionality that makes it more social.

This is going to be a challenge but, I hope, also a development that will take us further.

At the same time – says the chief editor – we’re going to roll out another 10 hyper local sites and maybe another 10…

Busy fall too, I expect 🙂

3 thoughts on “Hyperlocal news in Denmark: one editor's experiences

  1. Kasper Sorensen

    I’ve had the pleasure of working with Henriette before, and there’s something liberating about this concept. It’s citizen journalism in it’s purest form. An example of how journalists and citizen journalists can work and exist side by side.

    As there’s pointed out in the article, it’s not an easy road of transformation to embrace this new form. But as Henriette has experienced, communication and an open mind are the most effective tools.

  2. Pingback: Hyper-Local News: It’s About the Community or It Fails: Tech News and Analysis «

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