Karl Hancock spent 25 years at the epicentre of London’s financial world, working for Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Berenberg Bank. He’s given that up for an unlikely crusade to revitalize local news and he’s planning on hiring 100 journalists in towns across Britain.
Mr. Hancock has launched Nub News, a hyperlocal media outlet that mixes old-fashioned reporting with computer algorithms to cover every aspect of small-town living from what’s on at the cinema to train schedules, road repairs, real estate listings and the latest council shenanigans. The service has expanded to 26 communities since it launched last year and Mr. Hancock says he’s just getting started. His aim to reach up to 700 towns and small cities with a team of more than 100 reporters.
There’s certainly a gap to fill. Like Canada, Britain has seen a steady drop in the number newspapers and journalists covering small communities. From 2005 to 2018, Britain lost 245 local papers and the downward trend shows no sign of slowing down, according to Press Gazette, which covers the British newspaper industry.
“There is a real demand for local news and that’s never gone away,” Mr. Hancock, 51, said from his home in Devon in southwest England. “The real problem is how does one pay for it and how does one make it work?” He acknowledged that Nub News is a long way from making money but revenue and readership are growing and he’s already had two rounds of financings from eager investors.
The venture is largely the brainchild of Dean Waghorn, a 51-year-old computer programmer who came up with the idea for Nub News after watching the slow decline of his newspaper in Bridgewater, south of Bristol. He decided to fill the vacuum by creating a website and writing short stories based on news releases from town officials and the police. He also developed a program that could aggregate local information from various websites such as National Rail, eBay, and property sellers such as Zoopla and Rightmove. He ran the site in his spare time and was soon getting 20,000 unique visitors a month. That was enough to encourage him to approach Mr. Hancock, an old friend from university, to see if the concept could be expanded. “I thought, bloody hell, that’s pretty impressive,” Mr. Hancock recalled. He took the idea to some investor friends and raised enough money to launch Nub News on a bigger scale.
Mr. Hancock said the business model is simple; keep each town’s website intensely local and automate as much of the non-news content as possible. That frees the reporters to write stories and work with contributors who add to the news coverage. Nub News has one reporter cover three towns and everyone works from home. The content is free and revenue is generated by local businesses sponsoring pages on the site, such as news, obituaries, travel or sports. Mr. Hancock says he needs about £12,000 (about $20,480) in annual revenue in each town to break even.
One of his early hires was Tim Lethaby, a veteran local news reporter who had been laid off twice from papers that were downsizing. Mr. Lethaby, 40, jumped at the chance to join Nub News last April and he now runs five sites including one covering his hometown of Wells, a town in southwest England that has a population of around 10,000.
The Wells’ site is mix of hard news, such as a recent story about the potential closing of a local mental-health facility, and basic information including weather forecasts, movie listings and the location of speed cameras. There’s also classified ads, travel information, homes for sale and job postings. The latest figures show that roughly three-quarters of the town’s population has visited the site at least once. “You may only get a few hundred hits on stories, but if they are all local people and you are targeting local people, not clicks around the world, you’ve got a very engaged local audience,” Mr. Lethaby said. “People are getting a lot more locally focused and there isn’t anywhere else where they can get this kind information.”
Mr. Waghorn sees Nub News as something of a mission. He remembers growing up reading the Bridgewater Mercury and he used to supply it with reports about his soccer team. The paper is now part of a collection of titles that are run from a city 20 kilometres away. Nub News “is all about the unloved, forgotten news deserts,” he said. “We want to come in and bring green shoots of news back into that desert.”