Published on June 24, 2011
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Bart Brouwers, 50, has been at the forefront in the quest for a new business model for journalism ever since he started working at Spits, the Dutch free daily newspaper belonging to Telegraaf Media Groep (TMG), the largest media conglomerate in the country.
Brouwers became Spits’ editor in chief in 2006, after leading the Dagblad De Limburger newsroom for four years, and was an outspoken advocate of the free newspaper model.
In January 2010 he decided to leave Spits to create a network of sites functioning on the model of hyperlocal journalism. TMG asked him to stay in the group, and Brouwers became the first employee of a new spin-off called Dichtbij (Dutch for “Close by”, or “Close to me”).
In the search for a new journalism model, sites like Dichtbij.nl are looking at fields which have been overlooked by traditional media, and sometimes they are crossing delicate boundaries.
Relevance from a local perspective
In a way, hyperlocal journalism is a return to the times before the World Wide Web.
When journalists started to use the Internet to put out news and information, one of the most evident gains offered by the new medium was ubiquity.
As a journalist, you were no longer confined to a limited geographical area. Your readers (or users) could come from everywhere in the world, and you could expand your coverage beyond the area usually covered by the distribution of your physical newspaper.
But journalism, or at least one kind of journalism, has always been about local relevance. French journalism students may know this as the “mort/kilometre” rule, which basically says that a person’s death in your neighbourhood is more important than a person’s death some place far away. To put it less morbidly, a power failure in your town is probably going to be more important to you than the Greek economic crisis (if you are not in Greece, that is).
The main idea behind hyperlocal journalism, Brouwers says, is to offer relevance from a local perspective.
Ideally, operations like Dichtbij.nl provide news and information in a classical way and at the same time serve as a reference point and a social space where members of a community can share experiences.
Or, as Brouwers says, as “a platform for sharing, curating and – in fact – mutualisation between professional and amateur.”
That is to say, such journalism should encourage the users to contribute their own information about the community. In Brouwers’ view, “hyperlocal is all about social bonding, in media and in real life.”
Does this make it somewhat like Facebook or Twitter? No, he answers – social activity is not the main purpose of hyperlocal journalism, as it is with Facebook or Twitter. Its main purpose is local relevance, “in every aspect you can think of.” To achieve this goal, however, not only the users, but also the journalists are expected to get involved in social activities.
From 1 to 100
Dichtbij started out in 2010 with three pilot sites, in the cities of Zwolle, Woerden and Eindhoven, and in June this year blossomed into an impressive operation covering the entire Netherlands. More than 80 weekly newspapers, also part of TMG, turned over their online activities to Dichtbij at the start of the month.
This brings the total of Dichtbij active websites to 85, each with its own editorial and commercial staff. The network also includes more than 200 so-called “light” sites, which aggregate content from other sources and do not employ editorial staff. The plan is to slowly turn them into full-scale operations.
The Dichtbij staff has also grown fast, from one employee a year ago to 55 in May 2011 and 80 people now. At the end of the summer, says Brouwers, Dichtbij will count more than 100 staffers – one third editorial, one third commercial, and one third “the rest.”
It’s been a fast pace, but Brouwers hopes the network won’t grow too fast for its means. “We’re trying to keep a balance between opportunities and costs,” he says. The opportunities, however, are abundant, he adds. “There are so many nice places we still want to conquer.”
Last week, Brouwers looked at three major cities he hopes to include in the network this summer: Groningen, Arnhem and Maastricht, which at the moment are only covered by “light” Dichtbij sites.
Pushing the envelope
What does Brouwers mean by opportunities? “If I look at what we did in, for example, Eindhoven, than I am sure this is possible in every urban community in the Netherlands,” Brouwers says.
“We pushed the envelope in relation to the ‘mixed zone’ between editorial and commercial,” he explains. “(We made) some terrible mistakes, but managed to find a field that wasn’t covered by traditional media.”
The system is sure to raise some eyebrows amongst those who say the border between journalism and sales should not be crossed: “We talk with what used to be our advertisers and discuss with them their communication needs. (…) We have the audience they want to reach. Of course, that’s how it always was. But the difference is that we don’t discuss square millimetres. Instead we discuss the message they want to get across.”
For example, Brouwers explains, a local bank does not just want to communicate about mortgage rates. “They just want everybody to know they care about the local community (not kidding). So we are writing about the events they are sponsoring: a festival, a sports clinic etc. Things we would want to write about anyway. One difference: we get paid for it.”
Such material may include a news story about the famous Silly Bandz bracelets being made available through a certain online store, a short feature about a sauna, or a report about a house renovation company taking advantage of a temporary tax cut to offer discounts to customers (all examples are in Dutch). Such stories usually include links to the companies’ websites, and details on how to get the product or service, but in some cases there is no clear indication in the article page that they are in fact advertorials. Brouwers says this is an editorial decision, not a commercial one.
If the content is editorially all right, or, in other words, if the newsroom would have run the story anyway, mentioning the advertising deal may divert the reader’s attention away from the gist of the article, he thinks. He argues that being paid is only one of the factors influencing the journalist’s work. Other influencers include background, education, friends, sympathies etc. “It’s the task of the journalist to be trustworthy,” he says.
Brouwers believes, at the same time, that the journalists of today should be entrepreneurial and work much closer than in the past with the advertising and sales departments. He likes to talk about attitude, and among the 20 golden rules he lays out for hyperlocal journalists he lists “Collaborate, don’t invent,” “Get personal,” “Be social,” “Publish real-time,” “Be easy-to-use,” “Be open,” “Mistakes are no #fail,” “Use outside knowledge,” “Offer your skills,” or “Avoid acting ‘special’.” (For the full list, go to this presentation.)
Step by step
Attitude may actually be Dichtbij’s greatest asset in an environment where many media companies are experimenting with hyperlocal journalism without being able to show too many encouraging results. The Guardian recently decided to end its local blogs in Leeds, Cardiff and Edinburgh. “Unfortunately, while the blogs have found engaged local readerships and had good editorial impact, the project is not sustainable in its present form,” wrote Meg Pickard, The Guardian’s head of digital engagement.
In Romania, where in the past few years big newspaper publishers preferred to invest in traditional print operations rather than innovative online publications, Adevarul Holding killed, in June, one of its most ambitious projects, Adevarul de Seară. Started in October 2008, it included around 50 local afternoon newspapers with a total printrun of more than 500,000 copies a day.
In the meantime, Dichtbij itself is crossing over to print. Each of TMG’s weeklies gives its back page to Dichtbij, which uses it to print, among other things, the best articles of the week, the most viewed and most commented stories, as well as some user generated content such as pictures.
Dichtbij.nl Editorial chief Bart Brouwers
Not everything that Dichtbij does is hyperlocal. “Hyperlocal is my goal,” says Brouwers, “but there still is a long way to go.” For example, in Eindhoven, a city of 250,000 people, the site needs to go “deeper down,” to all the neighbourhoods. On the other hand, one of the biggest challenges of the hyperlocal model is that the smaller the community, the less turnover you will be able to get. “So what you see is that what’s best for your audience might be bad for your business,” explains Brouwers. That is one reason why you can only become a hyperlocal service step by step, he adds.
In other words, Dichtbij is still working on its business model as it grows. As Brouwers puts it, he does not have the perfect solution yet and he does not always have the right answers. But his operation “is more than a weird experiment.”
Tags: bart brouwers, business model, commercial, dichtbij, editorial, experiment, hyperlocal, journalism, local, model, netherlands, traditional media,
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