How big is a hyperlocal patch? My final word on the size of a hyperlocale

Over the summer I wrote some pieces regarding the scale at which hyperlocal media production might operate. It involved talking about postcodes, more postcodes and US cable TV and its broadcast footprints. Beyond that, I’ve been reading articles that claim all manner of sizes and shapes for hyperlocal media – up to and including whole US states – and I’ve distilled it all down to this, the cut and keep “how big is a hyperlocal patch?” definition:

Hyperlocal media can be plotted within a macro-organisational scale that describes media-space relations. It sits beneath local media in this scale and is bound to an area (which I call a hyperlocale) that ranges downwards from a UK postcode district. This gives an upper population for a hyperlocale of 22,500 people, though realistically many hyperlocales serve much smaller populations. There is a strand of the literature on hyperlocal media that is concerned with the manner in which many hyperlocales can be represented together within an aggregated service that covers a locality, region, and nation (or a US state). Such services can be described as hyperlocal media, but researchers should be aware of the distinction between the hyperlocale and the overall hyperlocal media service.

Of course, the size of a hyperlocale is one thing, but it’s nowhere near defining what hyperlocal media is.

The ever present problem of hyperlocale and scale

I’m trying to close of a section of my literature review today, which led to me chasing up an old lead that purports to be the origin of the term ‘hyperlocal’ (or hyper-local as was). The reference leads to a business article in the Washington Post from 1991, which outlines a new cable TV news channel:

To give the channel what Hillis calls a “hyper-local” slant, Allnewsco will supplement its regular programming with three shorter news reports each day tailored specifically for viewers in suburban Maryland, Northern Virginia and the District. (Farhi, 1991: p. F25)

How much does this moment of coining offer to our understanding of hyperlocal web publishing? Very little.

I tend to take the central unit of hyperlocal activity as the placeblog (which may be independent or which may operate as part of a formal network of distribution, ownership and control), and placeblogs typically represent something in the order of a UK postcode district. Compare this with hyper-local as described in Farhi’s article: Allnewsco planned to offer three news feeds for three hyper-local patches within their total coverage area. Those areas – ‘suburban Maryland’, ‘Northern Virginia”, and ‘The Distrct’ – are probably meaningful terms to those who live in Washington, but mean little to me. But they sound pretty big, and much bigger than I’d accept as being hyperlocal in the sense we mean it now.

Digging a little deeper, I can see that the population of ‘The District’ (Washington DC) is said to be 617,000, whilst ‘Northern Virginia’ is a non-formal geographical description for part of the State of Virginia that can be said to account for 2,623,079 people. ‘Suburban Maryland’ (also not a formal conurbation) is quite hard to define (I even asked a Baltimorean who said she was unfamiliar with the phrase) – for now let’s take the state population less the population of the larger cities – that gets us to 4,802,293.

This is all very hard to pin down properly*. Lucky for me my Baltimorean just messaged me something that helps clarify this further: the area referred to in Farhi’s article as the ‘Washington area’ probably refers to ‘the Washington DC metropolitan area’, and there is a handy guide for researchers to define that area here which gives me a clear breakdown of those three hyperlocales:

Jurisdiction Population
District of Columbia 585,459
Northern Virginia 2,042,792
Suburban Maryland 2,030,492

This table draw on 2006 census data for districts within the three hyperlocales chosen by Allnewsco for their project – I suspect slightly higher than they were in 1991, certainly different, so bear that in mind as I draw this to a close.

So let’s now put this into the context of UK media, and current thinking about hyperlocal media. The population of Birmingham is estimated at just over 1,000,000 and we get the same estimate for the Black Country, making a combined population of around 2 million – or equivalent to just one of Allnewsco’s hyperlocales. To come at the figures another way, we might expect a placeblog to have a reach pushing at the maximum end to a postcode district which is a reach of 22,500. The areas of local focus we deal with in contemporary conversations about hyperlocal are about 1% the size of Allnewsco’s ‘original’ hyperlocal – they’re just quite simply different things.

Does this matter much? Yes and no. It illustrates some of the caution we need to take when comparing US examples of hyperlocal activity with UK ones (and perhaps from country to country). This is something of a running issue as you move through literature, for example I often find that American writers refer to hyperlocals that cover whole states (these large hyperlocals are in fact usually aggregated networks of many placeblogs that serve small hyperlocales, along the scale of postcode district). This early use of the phrase hyper-local was framed in part by its transmission technology (TV has historically operated at larger scales, so there was novelty in the level of local coverage offered here), and in part by its geographical context (things scale differently in the US, it seems), but also by media markets. We could argue that the use of the modifier ‘hyper’ was apt because it was delivering a granularity of service that was new, much as place blogs do now, and so there is something common between the use then and now. That seems reasonable to do, but what we mustn’t do is forget the vast differences in scale that apply when reading accounts of hyperlocal media.

But the question that I’m really struggling with is this: what happened between the early 90s and the mid/late 00s that meant that hyper-local (as a term) sat on a shelf? Blogging about places didn’t just start happening one day, but the term seems to get parachuted onto placeblogs, and then inspires new ones from around 2005. Is this a convergent evolution – did someone re-coin hyperlocal? – or is there really a continuum from Maryland in 1991 to WV11 in 2012?


* I kept my working out in this post despite Leland Strott sending me the right answer because I think it illustrates some of the difficulty in understanding the human geography / psychogeography / demography of reading a location from outside.

References:

FARHI, P. (1991) Taking Local Coverage to the Limit: 24-Hour Cable News, The Washington Post, 11/3/1991.  [Accessed 14/8/12].

 

More postcodes: hyperlocales, postcodes, and regional variations

I must be sounding slightly obsessed with postcodes at the moment…

UK postcodes are expressed as follows: B42 2SU. The postcode district in this example is ‘B42’. Frequently postcode districts are used as part of the identity of a hyperlocal website (e.g. expressed through logos and URLs) as a shorthand way of describing their hyperlocale, or their patch.

I just did a quick count on the Openly Local database [usual caveats of incomplete data apply], and ten percent of listings for England featured a postcode description within their listing within their name, URL, or location data.

Although clusters within Birmingham, London and Hull were evident, the convention of linking the hyperlocal brand a to a postcode district was pretty spread throughout England.

Interestingly the convention did not cross into Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland (with the exception of one Scottish hyperlocal website). So what have the devolved regions got against the postcode? Or rather, why are the English so keen on managing their sense of space through them?

A third of the English hyperlocals that referred to a postcode within their branding belonged to the same aggregated platform that had imposed postcode based delineation upon the publishers, so that accounts for some but not all of it.

Hyperlocal and ‘postcode areas’

‘Postcode areas’ are often used to define the space – the hyperlocale as I’ve taken to calling it – which hyperlocal blogs serve, for example Sutton Coldfield Local used to be the B72 Blog and that sense of space is still fairly implicit in its coverage despite the name change (see also B31 Voices and many many others). I’m trying to wrap my head around what we mean by a postcode area, and what that means in terms of scale and reach. This table is useful in clarifying the various levels of the postcode system and what that means in terms of hyperlocal audience.

Average population size for postcode geographical areas

Average population

Area name

England & Wales

Scotland

Northern Ireland

Postcode area (e.g. YO)

500,000

400,000

1,750,000

Postcode district (e.g. YO10)

22,500

12,000

21,500

Postcode sector (e.g. YO10 5)

600

600

600

Full postcode (e.g. YO10 5DG)

40

40

40

So interestingly, most times I hear people talk about postcode area they mean a postcode district, and a postcode district is probably larger than I thought it was…