Knowledge Bridge

Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

Dutch local news project finds clues to sustainability

As pressures have grown on local newspapers in North American and Western Europe, there have been a lot of experiments in local journalism. These mostly digital hyperlocal projects, as they have come to be known, have found limited success.  Most successful projects are small, with only a few staff members, or focused on specific topics like politics or business with content pitched to professionals who are willing to pay.  There are still few examples of digital local projects that have grown to the kind of scale that would match the size and scale of a local newspaper, television or radio news operation.

Dichtbij website

However, Harvard’s Nieman Lab journalism blog has found an example in the Netherlands that holds some lessons on how a digital local news operation might work. The project, Dichtbij which means “close to me” in Dutch, has 80 sites across the country, and, according to a Dutch financial newspaper, is on track to generate €10m in 2012. The network is backed by Telegraaf Media Groep, which publishes the largest Dutch newspaper and also has other print, radio and TV properties. The hyperlocal network has 140 employees, with almost half dedicated to sales.

You can read the full profile of the site at Nieman Lab, but I’ll share the headlines of the lessons that the network’s founder, Bart Brouwers, has learned in growing the site:

  •  Reporters are also community managers. They spend 50% of their time reporting stories and creating text and multimedia content for the site, but they also dedicate substantial time to engaging the local community, mostly through social media. In many ways, it’s important to think of this community building as developing a loyal audience.
  • Editorial and commercial staff work closely together.  A team of four “entrepreneurial journalists” work with the commercial staff to generate “commercially driven content”. It only makes up 10% of the content site wide, Brouwers said. Sponsorship is disclosed in the last paragraph of the story. This would be controversial in many newsrooms, and you can even sense of hint of skepticism in the Nieman Lab profile.
  • Aggregating content isn’t enough. Success would be very difficult without original content to sell. To help generate more original content, the network has launched both iPhone and Android apps to encourage more contributions from the communities the network serves.

Brouwers told me on Twitter that they still have work to do.

No matter whether the site is locally focused or part of a national network, the Dichtbij model shows how journalists can help build a loyal audience for their journalism through the use of social media, and how these social media ties can then be used to tap contributions from members of the public. The model also shows how commercial creativity is key to success for digital content businesses.

Article by Kevin Anderson

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