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Guardians Failed Experiment In Local News Starts A Chain Reaction

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The Guardian has announced its Guardian Local pilot is to end. Described as an experiment in local journalism, three websites were set up two years ago to serve Cardiff, Leeds and Edinburgh.

The publisher says the idea was to find out whether new models of local journalism could be editorially and commercially viable. But despite attracting strong followings for the mix of multimedia reporting and civic engagement via community-focused online and offline events, it is pulling the plug on its team of ǽƒ_ª_beatbloggersǽƒ_ª¶. The Guardianǽƒ_ªƒ_½s head of digital engagement Meg Pickard says the project is ǽƒ_ª_unsustainableǽƒ_ª¶.

The Guardian told TheMediaBriefing in a statement: ǽƒ_ª_Despite a great deal of enthusiasm and support for this experimental approach to local journalism, it is clear that significant further investment would be required for the project to grow and develop.

ǽƒ_ª_We have therefore reluctantly taken the decision to bring the experiment to a close. The nature of digital innovation means investing in and trying new things, but also knowing when to call it a day.ǽƒ_ª¶

So surely that means end of story. Or is it?

The Guardian chose a blog model, with locally focused sites run by a single journalist. The revenue model was standard ǽƒ_ªƒ__ advertising banners, a self-service panel aimed at local advertisers managed by the self-serve advertising technology provider Addiply, a site-specific feed of the guardian.co.ukǽƒ_ªƒ_½s dating service Soulmates and a block of Google ads.

According to Robert Andrews on paidContent:UK, the revenue brought by Addiply in about Ç_¶œ500 a year (see note below). So there was clearly not enough cash to turn a profit. Traffic stats published by the Guardian for December 2010 showed unique users for Leeds 32,735; Cardiff 44,959; Edinburgh 34,388.

The closure announcement was met with dismay by fans of the sites in all three locations, with comments on Pickardǽƒ_ªƒ_½s guardian.co.uk post passing the 200 mark.

In Leeds there is a campaign to reverse the decision, with discussion around the Twitter hashtag #SaveGdnLeeds. Meanwhile Leeds-based web and mobile product strategist Matt Edgar, a former newspaper journalist, has set up a fundraising appeal for 35 people to match his pledge of Ç_¶œ23.32 a month ǽƒ_ªƒ__ the cost of a Guardian newspaper subscription ǽƒ_ªƒ__ towards running a similar community news site.

By Wednesday, May 4, 10 people had signed up ahead of the May 31 deadline. Matt explained in a reply to a post about the initiative by blogger Phil Gyford: ǽƒ_ª_The value for me is not in having interesting stuff to read, but in how such a service makes a city function more smartly and feel better about itself ǽƒ_ªƒ__ not in a boosterish way but in terms of having its own voice, connecting and empowering local people.ǽƒ_ª¶

The pledges would provide annual funding of just over Ç_¶œ10,000, and a core group of supporters, with the aim of adding more revenue with a mixture of micro-payments, advertising, sponsorships or other models. It seems that the Guardianǽƒ_ªƒ_½s experiment, while failing to find a viable commercial model, has whetted the cityǽƒ_ªƒ_½s appetite for an alternative to the traditional local media offerings. Matt says on hisblog he is convinced there is a future for local paid-for media on the web and adds: ǽƒ_ª_This pledge is about a communityǽƒ_ªƒ_½s ability to tell its own stories.

Right now we hear a lot about the risks of national supermarket chains squeezing out local retailers. Today I realised that whatǽƒ_ªƒ_½s true of bread and milk may also be true of news and information.ǽƒ_ª¶

It may just turn out that the Guardianǽƒ_ªƒ_½s failed experiment has acted as a catalyst for a new sustainable site to emerge from its own audience.

Update: This article originally stated that the local sites made Ç_¶œ500 in local ads in total - but this figure merely represents the amount generated through Addiply. The full total, which also includes Google AdSense and money from the Guardian's own ad network, has not been released.

Patrick adds:

It is worth pointing out that while the business model of these sites was unproven and ultimately unviable, the publishing model from a content perspective was a success - as as proven by the outpouring of anger from readers in Leeds, Edinburgh and Cardiff, and the awards and accolades the three beatbloggers gathered.

Sarah Hartley, who led the project, doesn't agree with Ed's analysis and "takes exception to the term 'failed'", preferring to describe the project as "halted, stopped, concluded".


Ed Oldfield has been a regional media journalist for 25 years and is now a production editor with Northcliffeǽƒ_ªƒ_½s Plymouth-based South West Media Group

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