Rick Waghorn: Why the ‘Godfather of Hyperlocal’ is keeping it simple

Rob Williams
MeIndy21 Rick Waghorn: Why the Godfather of Hyperlocal is keeping it simple

Rick Waghorn: 'There is an assumption that the web owes us all a full time living as journalists. I don’t think that assumption has been proved yet.’

Whether or not Clay Shirky was right when he said we should let ‘a thousand flowers bloom to replace newspapers’ the heavy landscaping would appear to be already underway in Wales.

The news last week that the circulation of every Welsh regional newspaper has fallen, and that the Western Mail’s readership has dropped below 30,000, should be both alarming and depressing. However, for many who have followed the decline of the local and regional press in Wales over the last ten years it is likely to be neither. For them it is simply confirmation of a coming print wasteland.

For yet others still, who are able to see past the crisis, it is an opportunity to do something new. One such person is former regional news sports writer turned digital entrepreneur, Rick Waghorn.

Waghorn, founder of the successful myfootballwriter websites, and a man referred to by The Guardian as the ‘Godfather of Hyperlocal’ (a label he seems less than comfortable with), left his print job in 2006 following a round of redundancies at the newspaper group Archant.

Inspired by a Clay Shirky article, Waghorn gave up on fourteen years of a print journalism career to set-up, first, and then the myfootballwriter websites,

‘It was literally a 40th birthday sort of moment – January 16th 2006. I read a piece in which Shirky was drawing the analogy between the newspaper industry and the record industry. People still want to listen to good music and discover new bands, but they don’t necessarily want to listen to them on a CD. By the same token people who still want to source good stories and read good writing don’t necessarily want it on the pages of a printed newspaper.’

Waghorn’s story, once rare – but increasingly less so amongst journalists, is one of experimentation and steep learning curves. Building on the idea of the sports writer as a trusted local and regional brand he set out to establish a network of football writing sites. It is a project which has achieved, he admits, a varying level of success,

‘It was and remains fag-packet-thinking. From my back bedroom in Norfolk we never quite managed to get anyone to push the model on for the full seventy two football league clubs.’

Despite myfootballwriter not expanding as he perhaps would have liked it did garner the attention of the national press. During 2006 the sites sold content into the Daily Telegraph sports desk on a six week trial. The process again taught Waghorn some valuable formative lessons,

‘We lived and learnt. We had about 9 months of full time journalists staffing the Norwich, Ipswich and Colchester desks. Without the advertising elegance and the syndication opportunities of that full network, it doesn’t work. We had to retreat. There isn’t the income to sustain that sort of full time occupancy. I think when we look at the hyperlocal movement that is a very big lesson learnt. There is an assumption that the web owes us all a full time living as journalists. I don’t think that assumption has been proved yet.’

From the beginning of his forays into digital start-ups and hyperlocal media Waghorn took the issue of advertising seriously. Fortuitously, perhaps, Waghorn’s Archant departure coincided with the redundancy of a senior advertising sales rep with twenty five years of experience. Together he and Waghorn set about selling advertising in the emerging ‘extremely interesting’ local digital market place. It was the beginning of another process of learning and development for Waghorn culminating in the launching of his own self-service local digital advertising tool – Addiply.

Disenchanted with the Google ad-sense system, Waghorn saw the potential of a self-service text based advertising tool developed by a friend of a friend who ran a betting site. The revelation – that a simple and cost-effective advertising tool which rewarded publishers was needed – came after a particularly frustrating episode with the myfootballwriter sites,

‘What prompted me to set it up was doing 400,000 sticky page impressions off myfootballwriter in the summer of 2007, seven minute engagement time – all the kinds of metrics that you would hope would deliver a degree of revenue stream. And I earned 140 bucks over the course of two or three months.  At that point you start thinking – is there not a better way to do this?’

The Addiply tool has been remarkably popular with hyperlocal websites, remarkably quickly, something that Waghorn attributes to the simplicity of the model, as opposed to the clever but complex Google system,

‘There is an inherent complexity to the genius that is Google and I think that’s where we look to offer an alternative in terms of a model for local advertising.’

Addiply, Waghorn argues, gives writers the power to control the advertising that hits their sites through pre-approval, rather than being, as he puts it,

‘…beholden to what falls off Google’s table – and what the magic algorithm decides is appropriate advertising for your particular platform.’

That Addiply can give hyperlocal writers a small income is a factor Waghorn regards as increasingly important. The plan is to move is from the ‘not-for-profit’ to a ‘not-for-loss’ paradigm in order to reward writers who he sees as providing a public service.

Few hyperlocal bloggers, however, begin their projects, as Waghorn did, by thinking about advertising straight away. Indeed, many seem to be reluctant to engage with advertising at all. This is despite revenue being the worryingly large elephant in the room of most local news start-ups.

Of course, for many hyperlocal bloggers their sites are not about the money – they are about fulfilling some sort of civic service, or in some way making their communities better. However, for others the hostility towards engaging with advertising is more complicated. This is particularly the case where former journalists are concerned Waghorn says,

‘They really don’t like the idea of knocking on the door and asking for an advert. Fascinating that those same journalists will knock on a door after a teenage boy is killed in a road accident. They see that as part of their journalistic DNA. Ask that same journalist to knock on the door and ask for a ten pound a week advert and its ‘that’s not my job’.  I think it will be their job on a level. Certainly on that local level anyway. We have to master new skills and from mastering new skills there will come a demand for new tools.’

Although Waghorn talks almost evangelically about the need for journalists to engage in entrepreneurial activities he is not entirely convinced that those hacks of his generation will be able to manage it. He speaks glowingly of the new generation of online journalists like Josh Halliday or Hannah Waldram, both of whom started with hyperlocal websites before being recruited by The Guardian. Those people coming out of journalism schools now, Waghorn suggests, will find online, hyperlocal, digital advertising and developing new and varied platforms to deliver content, as much a part of their journalistic DNA as the ‘death knock’ was to the old-school local reporter.

For the older generation, however, he concedes it continues to be a struggle,

‘I’ve watched my ten year old boy editing video off his mum’s laptop now. It’s not going to be a question for him – in front of him there lies a green and pleasant land. For those of us stuck where we are at the moment – it’s a slog.’

For now, at least, Waghorn seems to be winning the battle. Talks with STV, involvement in the successful (but ultimately aborted) Wales Live IFNC bid, as well as work with both The Guardian and Trinity Mirror, all point to an advertising system whose time appears to have come.

Despite these achievements Waghorn is reluctant to stop pushing for a move towards a not-for-loss model; which is perhaps why that opening Shirky quote appears to be one of his favourites,

‘What we are trying to do at the moment is to allow community publishers to be at least not for loss. If we are looking at a landscape in which we’re hoping that a thousand flowers will bloom let’s see if we can sustain…if we can nurture those early flowers‘.

Rick Waghorn blogs at ‘Out With A Bang’

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