Shutting down the St Margarets Community Website

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After sixteen years of running the St Margarets Community Website, I decided to close it down. I had often thought about how my involvement with the site would end; would pass it along or how I would turn it off. In the end, it was a fairly easy decision, I just had to write the final posts, add a message and make a plan on how to turn off the bits that will not age well.

You can read my goodbye message if you are interested. I thought I would add a few things to that post here.

Hyperlocal websites are a strange thing

When I started the site, there was a bit of an attempt by the government, UK media companies and big US internet companies to help hyperlocal websites with news feeds, technology (mostly CMSes) and journalism training. I did look into all of these options. I also attended a weekend ‘unconference’ of hyperlocal website creators and several more local meet-ups. However, I found it all lacking. None of the tools seemed helpful, or even worse, were very pointed. I found the community was very much not a community. People were unwilling to really open up about stats and tools. I tried to change that personally by posting annual reviews with all my stats laid bare.

Hyperlocal websites are a lonely business

The other point I should mention is how hard it was to find contributors and helpers for the site. At the very start I did get some help from a few friends to get the word out and a lot of help from the local traders association. That was great. However, no one wanted to provide content, even the fairly simple and mostly automated adding of events on the site. At some point, I even spent some hours showing some potential volunteers how to do this and that resulted in zero posts. I assume I made it all seem too complicated. But the tools are good and have been used successfully on many the sites I work with professionally.

I should say, I did find one person who did write for me, Martyn Day. And that was great. I let him write about things, not St Margarets and edited his work lightly. But he was about it.

Ownership and expectations

Another thing that was complicated for people in the community to understand was, who owned the website. Even though I had the goals posted on the site and in a few editorials, nearly everyone thought the site was making me money, that I had a company around me, and that I had an agenda. That, or people thinking that I should just publish their advertisements for free all the time.

I agree I didn’t lay out my editorial guidelines in detail; however, even when I explained to them these same people usually tried to fight me to get what they wanted. I found this very annoying. The other expectation I often had thrown at me was that I respond and post things that fit other people’s timing. Now I did publish at least weekly, if not more often. I find it crazy that people would expect a same-day turnaround on a site that was free and a side project.

Promotion

Ultimately, it is my fault for not having real goals for the site. This lead to me not promoting it very aggressively. After a few years, I didn’t really have easy or free opportunities to promote the site to new people. This meant that the site’s growth was slow and organic. More recently, I noticed people talking a lot more about the new, advertising-driven sites like Nub News and Nextdoor rather than my site, even though we often had 100% overlap in news. So after a time, I really did wonder what value I was adding.

Lack of feedback

I barely ever received any feedback on the site. This sounds immodest, but I think the site just looked too professional. I edited nearly every word to look like it was written by a team. I worked hard to make it look good with images and responsive pages. The events linked to the directory, etc… Perhaps I hid my existence too much and people thought there was a commercial entity behind it. Whatever the reason, I struggled to get feedback on the site. I did look at my stats, but Martyn’s articles were often very popular beyond St Margarets that it was hard to see what people wanted more or less of. I knew that NIMBY issues were always big, but I personally don’t like supporting ones that divide communities, so steered clear.

Lessons for someone else

So this might seem like a lot of complaining, but here are the things I would tell someone looking to start a hyperlocal site:

  • find a few friends to build the site with and make sure you agree to your principles and the work expected of each person
  • have a goal, or set new goals every year, that gives you something to focus on – perhaps subscribers or comment numbers or articles published
  • have editorial guidelines and principles about what you will or will not publish
  • seek feedback with regular polls, encourage comments, and organise meetups
  • monetise if you need to, but use a platform, no one wants to shake down the local butcher for £20 - note that I didn’t try to monetise

If you want to ask me more about my experience, please drop a comment below.