Along with “citizen journalism” (previously) comes “hyperlocal,” a term referring to coverage of news so local it tends to be below the radar of most media. Hyperlocal news and information is very place-specific (perhaps geo-tagged to enhance location-based searches), and it includes a huge, almost unlimited, potential amount of information—think of expansive reportage (rather than just highlights) of town council and commission meetings, play-by-plays of Little League games, street repairs, police, fire and ambulance logs, and much more.
Some newspaper groups have taken up the term to encourage their editors to move toward more hyperlocal content. In small markets, that means “doing more of what we’ve always done, and what we know best” in metro markets, it means carving the market up into neighborhoods and making news accessible on that level. And in many cases, it means trying to bring the “citizen journalists” or “citizen bloggers” into a gee-whiz high-tech platform, with seriously mixed results. Here’s a little survey of attempts, large and small:
The Dallas Morning News operates neighborsgo, a site that purports to cover a slew of separate neighborhoods (listed in the search pulldown). Strangely, there’s no Morning News branding on the site. The top story of the moment seems to be about elementary school students who collect boxtops for some unspecified reason (although a moment later upon revisiting, I can’t locate it anymore; the site’s navigation is mighty perplexing for a geezer like me). For all of Dallas, today there are only 9 new news items. Pick a random neighborhood, and the top story is probably days old. Looks like a failed experiment, to me.
The Washington Post has tried this with LoudonExtra, a flashy site launched over the summer and immediately critiqued in the Wall Street Journal (see quotes and further commentary by Jon Talton). The Post is still trying, but as Jon says, “The geeks hired by the Post had not a clue about Loudoun.” And further:
The failure has been the business model, not real journalism. Technology can enhance news coverage; it can’t substitute for serious reporting and great writing. Yet year after year, publishers did a beat-down on newsrooms to fix a problem outside their control. They did nothing to market their products or recruit the world-class talent to fix the ad meltdown. Such is the consequence of an industry that had created monopolies and thought the confiscatory ad-rate cash would never stop flooding in the door.
The tech-heavy business model of some of these attempts also explains the rather spectacular failure of Backfence.com. Visit the URL today and you’ll encounter some kind of directory enterprise in the making. But the original idea, backed by around $3 million in venture capital, was to be a network of city-centered sites with citizen journalists gathering and posting news, and local salespeople generating ad revenue. A review of the operation posted in 2005 points to some of the problems even then apparent: “Something feels very incomplete about the experience of using it: I have to believe there’s more to Reston, McLean and Bethesda than what the sites suggest is there to be filled in.” After the demise, co-founder and “recovering journalist” Mark Potts posted a detailed list of lessons learned, including:
Engage the community. This may be the single most critical element. It’s not about technology, it’s not about journalism, it’s not about whizbang Web 2.0 features. It’s about bringing community members together to share what they know about what’s going on around town. A top-down, “if you build it, they will come” strategy absolutely does not work, and that’s not what Backfence did—otherwise, we’d have launched in a lot more than 13 communities in two years.
I would argue that for this very reason, it’s actually impossible to build a nationally branded network of hyperlocal sites. Unless, perhaps, you’ve got $3 billion, not $3 million, to play with.
So let’s look at a few really local sites—not created in some desperation by metro market papers, not VC-funded attempts to launch a national hyperlocal franchise.
One that gets a fair share of attention (“#1 placeblog in America,” for instance) and has been around for a while is Baristanet, covering Montclair, N. J. and environs. My opinion: very clean, very professional in its coverage, looks healthy, adwise (although no clue as to profitability).
Near the other end of the spectrum, in my book, is iBrattleboro, of Brattleboro, Vermont—also once hyped as a good model for citizen journalism, but unfortunately it has fallen into a rut. There have been no site improvements in a long while; most of the posts and discussion seem to be the same folks talking to each other; there’s no real focus and no comprehensive coverage. The site’s laudable idea of a local wiki has become mostly a local history resource and hasn’t reached its potential.
Then there’s Village Soup, covering a stretch of the Maine coast. Founder Richard Anderson has toiled for about 10 years building this operation, investing millions of his own dollars, launching several weekly print newspapers to help it compete against a slew of other daily, weekly and niche publications in the area. This year he bought out his struggling weekly competitors, and with the help of a Knight Foundation Newschallenge grant, is having his content management system rewritten as open-source software, with the hope that Village Soups will start simmering in many other locations. Village Soup demonstrates that when it comes to hyperlocal, there are no easy solutions—but their success shows that web-centered local journalism can work where traditional print-centered media were failing. Technology is an important component at Village Soup, but the focus is rightly on content. I’ll be looking further, in upcoming posts, at local news enterprises of this kind.
By the way:
If anyone still needs convincing that print newspapers will lose the race to online, read David Weir’s BNet piece “The Tipping Point Toward New Media:”
In almost every article you’ll read on the topic, it’s noted that newspapers still collect more ad revenue than do digital media. AdAge estimates that in 2008 newspaper ad revenue will drop 7.7% to $41.9 billion, while internet and mobile ad revenue will grow 20.9% to $26.6 billion, based on forecasts by Price Waterhouse Coopers. It is worth noting that if these trends continue, digital ad revenue will pass newspapers before the end of 2010.