Bart Brouwers has been overseeing the establishment of a whole group of hyperlocal sites in the Netherlands with the Telegraaf Media Group. As part of the Hyperlocal Voices series, he explains the background to the project and what they’ve learned so far. Two presentations on the project can be seen above.
Who were the people behind the blog, and what were their backgrounds?
About a year ago, I came up with the plan for a hyperlocal, hyperpersonal news and data network covering all of the Netherlands. My dream was to give every single Dutchman (we have 16 million & counting…) his own platform for local relevance.
I wanted to roll it out myself and in order to get it financed I made contact with the board of directors of the Telegraaf Media Groep. I already worked for them (as the editor-in-chief of national free newspaper Sp!ts and before that as the editor-in-chief of regional newspaper Dagblad De Limburger), so it felt kind of natural to tell and ask them before I would pitch my idea somewhere else.
What I didn’t know is that TMG was already working on a hyperlocal platform, so after a few talks we decided to combine both plans. So instead of quitting TMG and starting my own company, I’m still an employee.
What made you decide to set up the blogs?
I was convinced local relevance would/will be a strong force in media. The combination of local business and local information (news, data) could easily become the trigger for a fine enterprise.
It would be journalistic, and would at the same time concentrate on helping the local businesses and local governments find their exact audience.
Of course the problems newspapers have encountered the last couple of years helped build my ideas. Newspapers are powerful media, but they are also very inflexible: production and distribution don’t seem to fit in modern times anymore.
But that doesn’t mean necessarily that people have lost interest in (local) news. On the contrary, the internet has made it a lot easier to be informed and indeed, we are seeing a lot of traffic on news-sites and newsblogs.
Finally I was convinced that journalism itself would have to change. Old fashioned legacy newspaper journalism still has its value, but journalists will have to “open up” themselves: learn from the experiences from blogging and – most important – replace the old role as a messenger for a new one as an intermediate: break down the castle and and build a market place. Go look for the symbiosis between the professional (who still has the skills and the experience) and the amateur (who has the knowledge and could want to share it).
When did you set up the blogs and how did you go about it?
We are running several pilots momentarily, one of which has the shape of a blog. One acts more as a classic news site and one is a combination of both. We are piloting an aggregation model, a community model and a commercial model.
Apart from that we are building (not yet piloting though) mobile platforms with totally different functionality and usability.
The lessons we learn from the pilots will lead to the choice of the direction and a national rollout starting early 2011.
And as I stated above, the ultimate dream is to set up a different platform (web, mobile, whatever) for every single citizen.
With the help of technique I still hope that I will reach that goal, although I realise that it is a rather ambitious one. (on the other hand, you don’t have to actually build 16 million platforms to be able to offer a different platform for every citizen…)
The first months of this year have been filled with preparations on four levels: IT, content, business and marketing. We formed four research teams (one for each level) and from the results of those teams I wrote a business plan for the pilots. They started last august.
What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?
Most influential to me is Erwin Blom (http://erwinblom.nl, @erwblo), a Dutch blogger who has convinced me that not only the old business model of legacy media companies – based on print – is breaking down (anyone could see that), but also the way journalists act within it. He has been blogging for years about the way citizens act on what used to be the journalist’s pitches. Blom’s blog can easily be compared to blogs by people like Dave Winer, Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen. I’m not exaggerating!
Next to the ones mentioned: journalism.co.uk, niemanlab, readwriteweb, those sort of media related blogs. Not very surprising, I guess…
Of course I have been monitoring all sorts of hyperlocal websites, all over the world. All of them seem to have something special that makes it different from the rest. Most attention has gone to the much discussed American platforms like Outside.in, Patch and Everyblock. And yes, you can see elements of them in my own work.
But also English and French exemples have been helpful. One of my main lesson: don’t try to invent every wheel by yourself.
By the way, starting my own blog (dodebomen.nl) helped a lot in organising my views and thoughts.
How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?
Interesting question, because we are coping with it every day within the legacy media company I am working for. I am very traditional where I see the role of a professional in the selection, the filtering and the creation of quality content. I am also traditional in my ambition to tell stories that are not only interesting to read but also get as close as they can get to something you could call the truth.
But I am far from traditional when I look at the possibilities of mixing journalism with commercial activities. I am very opposed to the Chinese wall between editorial and commercial departments. These people should not only see eachother and talk to eachother, they should actually make their plans together.
One bottom line stays the same though: your audience has to be able to trust you. You should never write that a certain product is good when it is not.
I am also far from traditional when I stress the importance of finding a symbiosis with the audience. The skills of the professional combined with the knowledge of the citizen make a great basis to start from. It’s up to the professional to find this knowledge and – in most cases – curate it, but it is also a duty for this journalist to let himself be overruled by people who know better. Which isn’t easy for a traditional journalist.
And of course, it’s hardly traditional to say that journalists should get much more entrepreneurial than they have been for the last 50 years or so.
What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?
These moments have yet to come. I want to find out from the pilots what the ideal balance will be between news, data, utility, UGC, commercial info, etc.
Also I want to find out if it works best to publish in a traditional news-style or if a bloggers style would do better.
In fact, I want to accept the situation where one place will be treated in one way and another place in another way. It will all depend on the needs of a specific region, but also on the abilities and the strengths of the blogger/journalist/communitymanager/etc who is working on it.
Editorially and commercially this platform will be as flexible and multisided as possible.
What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?
Of course, as I only just started the pilots, I don’t have a lot of data yet. And as far as unique visitors are concerned, they are not very stable. One pilot has a range between 2,000 and 86,000 unique visitors per week (no data yet for one full month), another one (small village) has somewhere between 500 and 2,000. The other two are in between.