The mysterious Grey Cardigan this weekend blogged about his infuriation with his local weekly’s habit of using news of local planning applications to fill the space left over above the birth, death and marriage announcements in the classified section:
[T]aken as a measure of usefulness to readers living in rural idyll, whether or not a near neighbour is about to attach a carbuncle to their cottage is probably the most important news the paper can bring us; more so, even, than the inevitable uproar about bin collections on the front page.
But because the space available for planning applications is variable, some weeks they will be perfectly legible while on others they will be down to 6pt or worse, or even published incomplete or left out altogether. I know it’s a small thing, but it annoys me that such a valuable service is treated so poorly. It might be ineptitude, it might be laziness, but it’s little things like this that endanger sales.
I hope Grey will forgive the intervention of a mere newsroom “Web Monkey (Special Projects)” like myself, but he is absolutely right.
In addition to endangering their print sales, the approach to planning applications taken by Grey’s local rag is also endangering the relevance of its website — even though its parent company has, no doubt, recently professed a “hyperlocal” news strategy of some sort.
In online journalism circles, this would be discussed as an example of what Steven Johnson calls the “Pothole Paradox“: the fact that seemingly trivial developments happening near people’s homes interest them a great deal, while similar events occurring 100 metres further down the road are mind-numbingly boring.
The trick is to find a technological solution that will solve this paradox by targeting hyperlocal information, like planning application news, to only the handful of people who care a great deal about any given instance of it. Websites like Johnson’s Outside.in and Everyblock are attempting to do this through geotagging local public sector information and local bloggers’ posts to deliver this sort of “pothole news” to people wherever they live.
Its also the sort of thing that (most) local newspapers — and their websites — don’t do particularly well.
While the Grey Cardigan’s local paper is (like many others like it) still squeezing planning application details into 6pt type, two UK websites – PlanningAlerts.com and PlanningFinder.co.uk are busy coming up with a better way of providing this information to its former readers.
Both sites work the same way: Enter your postcode, and the site will automatically send you an e-mail alert if any neighbour within a given radius proposes said monstrous carbuncle extension.
Why aren’t local papers providing clever online services like this? It’s certainly a medium more appropriate to reporting planning applications than a weekly digest in 6pt type.
Services mapping local information to readers’ location like this are a tiny part of a bigger trend to develop the geographic web and its ancillary, local search — where the relevance of information is measured by its proximity to readers’ current location or to places significant to them. The mobile phone operators understand the commercial significance of this, as does Google. Why do you think they are investing so much money in cartography?
They’re coming after the local papers that no longer offer the most efficient way of getting local information to their readers.