South Rugby News: Snapshot of a hyperlocal newsroom
In this guest blogpost, South Rugby News co-founder Eleanor Holdsworth tells us about the history of her independent hyperlocal newsroom and the challenges that led to its closure, and offers advice to those who may want to start their own.
The heat of the Covid-19 pandemic changed communities - highlighting where we needed to work together and showing just how disconnected we had become.
It was in this context that we - long-standing journalist Richard Howarth and me, newbie Eleanor Holdsworth - started South Rugby News.
We wanted to help our neighbours connect better and get to know their locality more deeply. Our nearest town newspaper was dominated by press releases and advertising, with little coverage of the villages around the south of the town. There was definitely a space for our reporting.
So we founded South Rugby News in February 2021 and created a community interest company to publish it. We had big dreams - creating other hyperlocal online papers too when the time was right.
The setup was that I would take the lead on reporting, editing, publishing and the business-side of things, and my colleague would provide guidance and write articles too.
We both had other jobs - me as a full-time Mum and freelance writer, and Richard as a journalist writing for a nearby hospice.
We used Substack to publish and email out our stories - some for everyone and some for just the paying subscribers.
During the following 18 months we reported on planning developments; covered parish council meetings that hadn’t seen a journalist in years; reported from events; interviewed entrepreneurs and philanthropists; championed local businesses and delved into the wildlife in our countryside. We had a wonderful youth guest-writer and were recognised for our work with an award from the Independent Media Association.
I was publishing a story every day of the week, working in-between the baby’s naps, in evenings and when grandparents helped out with childcare.
Then in early 2022 Richard left the project to focus on other things and I was flying solo. I recruited an old friend and colleague to become a director of the business - he provided invaluable business and general support.
But by summer 2022, and with another baby on the way, it became clear that it would be very difficult to continue publishing as frequently and providing the same amount of coverage by myself. Financially the newspaper was covering its costs but not making enough for me to take a salary from it. It was with sadness that we decided to close the business and the newspaper.
It was a joy getting to know our community more. As all journalists know, once you start looking there are stories everywhere. And I had the privilege to help tell these stories to people who wouldn’t otherwise have heard them.
I interviewed people who had set up charity schemes to help their neighbours through the worst of the pandemic.
One of my favourite pieces of work was talking a walk through some ancient woodland with an amateur botanist. She showed me plants and fungi I would never have noticed. Those woodlands have been the centre of fierce public opposition to local development plans and it was wonderful to share their story with our readers.
In the year and a half we were running, we became the go-to source of information for many of our readers, listing events and public meetings that were not collated anywhere else online or in print.
What advice would I have?
I’d have three main points of advice for anyone setting up a hyperlocal paper.
Firstly, work with as big a team as you can build. It’s a lot of work running a hyperlocal and there’s not just the reporting. You’ve also got promotion and revenue generation to consider.
Secondly, think very carefully about the platform you use. We published on Substack because it was so easy to set up, write on and monetise. But it meant we couldn’t generate any revenue from online advertising.
And thirdly, if I did it all again I wouldn’t be so eager to set up a CIC. Not because the concept is bad, but it didn’t give us what we needed and landed me with an administrative headache at the end. It turned out to be a lot more difficult (i.e. I never managed it) to set up the bank account we needed, to be able to apply for the grant funding I had been relying on in my business plans.
Will local newsrooms survive?
I’d like to stay hopeful, but the reality seems that it is a lot of work for little financial gain and in these times that’s a luxury not many people have.
If local newsrooms are to survive, then we need a new way of paying for that journalism. Perhaps the subscription model works in cities but for a small operation like ours it didn’t. We were so grateful for the people who did subscribe and support us financially, but we just couldn’t get the numbers up.
The other thing that made a big practical difference at first was being able to attend parish council meetings online. When meetings clashed, or when I couldn’t get out for the evening, I could still report on the meetings I needed to. If the Government could have kept the temporary permission for remote local democracy to happen then I think democracy would be the better for it.