Hyperlocal Post-Mortem: Lessons Learned From InJersey | Street Fight

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Hyperlocal Post-Mortem: Lessons Learned From InJersey

18 Comments 01 July 2011 by

When we made the decision this week to shutter InJersey.com — a network of hyperlocal sites across the garden state that I helped build, nurture, and raise like a child — my biggest fear was that the effort would be branded a failure. In the age of Twitter, I was braced for the #epicfail hashtag. It came instead via Slate, in the form of a Jack Shafer missive, where he lumped my baby in as yet another vote of no-confidence in a “hyperloco” business model:

“The hyperlocal cemetery‚where Bayosphere — the Washington Post’s LoudounExtra; Allbritton’s TBD; Backfence; and the New York Times’ New Jersey experiment, “The Local” are taking the dirt nap — got a new tenant today, as Gannett folded hyperlocal venture InJersey.”

The truth is that my colleagues and I viewed InJersey as a hugely successful experiment. Lest that sound like empty spin, here are the facts: We launched two years ago on a shoestring budget, and grew to 17 town blogs, 2,259 members, and 90 community contributors. Though we were never able to afford a full-time staff, we recruited site editors from the stable of reporters across the Gannett New Jersey newspapers — the Asbury Park Press, Home News Tribune, Courier News, Daily Record, Courier-Post, and The Daily Journal — who built up a tremendous online community. Some town sites, such as Freehold InJersey, earned as many as 65,000 pageviews and 47,000 unique users in a month. We sold sponsorships onto the town sites, and advertisers were thrilled with the response. We were profitable.

Let me repeat that: We were profitable.

But, alas, we never generated enough revenue to pay for a full-time reporting (or sales) staff, and given the contractions of the newspapers (including a particularly tough round of layoffs last week), we couldn’t sustain the effort.

Still, as I said in my parting post on InJersey, even though we decided to suspend publishing, we did so knowing full well that the larger hyperlocal movement that we belonged to is as vibrant and innovative as ever. I’d hate for this act of infanticide to be minimized into a footnote on the wikipedia “hyperlocal” page. And so I want to share with you some of the major lessons I learned from InJersey.


1. Build Cheaply. Shortly after launching, Jeff Jarvis asked me to speak about the tools needed to launch a hyperlocal site at his New Business Models for News conference (or as I liked to call it, “HyperCamp”). I told the audience there that anyone can launch a killer community site for a few thousand dollars. Most can and do spend next to nothing. To drive home this point, I compared the budget to build InJersey ($3,720) with the cost of the movie “Paranormal Activity” ($11,000). It can be done.

We used WordPress for our CMS and BuddyPress for messaging, community registration, collaboration, and more. TribLocal uses much the same approach with their network. I have tremendous admiration for the kind of custom CMS that Patch has engineered — I’ve seen it; it’s impressive — but this doesn’t yield much of an advantage, IMHO. As hyperlocal swami Mark Potts says “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.”

2. Recruit Via Twitter. I’m still so thankful for the Twitter DM gods for sending me Colleen Curry. She contacted me out of the blue, back when I was putting the finishing touches on our first WordPress theme, asking if we needed any writers. Luckily, we were able to bring her on to not only cover the blog, but also as a reporter for the Asbury Park Press, and she’s been an animal ever since — covering town hall, school boards, breaking news, dangerous intersections, and even stray turkeys. (Story of her hiring, in her words.) Her Freehold site was our top performing hyperlocal. At the same time we shuttered InJersey, I’m proud to say she was promoted to become USA Today’s New Jersey correspondent (#silverlining!).

3. Partner with Everyone. This may sound obvious, but I’m still surprised at how many hyperlocal sites start off all on their lonesome. We actively reached out to other startups (SeeClickFix, Outside.In, PaperG), local groups (United Way, Rotary, Libraries), and residents (liberals, conservatives, high-schoolers, old timers).

What made our approach to hyperlocal different than others (at least when we launched) was that we offered open registration and the ability for anyone to publish. Yes, we had our fair share of off-the-wall and inflammatory posts, but we took them down, contacted the contributor, and coached them on how to revise. It wasn’t a perfect system, but there was a great deal less friction than the Times’s “The Local” faced by editing every contributor’s post via email. We’d hoped to have 50% of our posts generated by the community, and while we only got half-way there, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

4. Local Advertisers Won’t Self Serve (but they will support local coverage). Like so many digital startups, we’d hoped that tools like PaperG’s Flyerboard (also looked at AdReady and AdTaily) would give advertisers the tools to easily build, schedule, and purchase their ads all by themselves. Yeah, didn’t happen. That said, there was definitely an appetite among local advertisers to support the kind of reporting and coverage we were providing. Still loved using Flyerboard, we just had to sell them, create the ads, and schedule it all ourselves.

5. Maps are eye candy. No more, no less. We kind of fell in love with Patch’s first map treatment on their homepage. So much so that we built a WordPress plug-in to ape it. Only when we went live did we realize nobody was clicking on it. Next we tried Outside.In‘s full-page maps and widgets, which were even cooler — they automatically tagged our content with geo-locations based on contextual clues. Amazing magic trick. Alas, nobody clicked on them either.

Original Patch Map

InJersey's original map widget

(I suspect that the value of geo-tagging content and location will grow as we find new ways to integrate it with a mobile experience — e.g. presenting you with news and deals based on where you’re standing at that moment. Now that Outside.In is a part of AOL/Patch, I’m sure their technology will be put to good use.)

6. Aggregation and syndication are a smoke screen. During a previous round of layoffs, we attempted to automate the posting of content to some of our sites in Morris County. The idea being to aggregate other blogs and syndicate stories from dailyrecord.com, the sister newspaper site. It was almost immediately apparent that we’d ripped the soul out of the sites, and they quickly became ghost towns. Sure, they had “content” — and thanks to SEO a trickle of traffic — but not a whole lot of living, breathing residents.

7. Display advertising isn’t enough. We simply didn’t see enough local advertising to ever make our sites totally self-sufficient on display dollars. Howard Owens, prepare your flamethrower. I know that he claims to be able to generate upwards of $100-$150k/year on local advertising in The Batavian, and if this is true, my hat is off to him. But most sites are going to need to great creative, and there are plenty of other revenue streams that hyperlocals can employ. Local-local Daily Deals is one idea that has, of course, been discussed. Also promising: The sort of conference that NewWest.net operates; classes like the kind that we co-hosted with the Citizens Campaign; and commercial businesses like Brownstoner’s Brooklyn Flea. In fact, one of the most promising side-businesses just might be news cafes. Which brings us to:

Freehold InJersey "bureau" in Zebu Forno coffee shop

8. Coffee shops are a natural hyperlocal nexus. Many hyperlocal editors work out of Starbucks and neighborhood joints already, but the aforementioned Colleen Curry took the bold step of opening up a bureau in Zebu Forno in Freehold. Alright, it was really just a computer set up with a “The Journalist Is In” sign atop it. But it proved to be a brilliant way to raise awareness of the site and a place to recruit contributors and interview subjects. We didn’t recruit as many folks as we would have liked, but there’s little doubt it raised our profile in town. The Winnipeg Free Press was so inspired by it — and other similar initiatives — that they opened up their own News Cafe this year. Even though some have tried and failed at this model, like Nase Adresa (“Our Address”) in Czech Republic, they never went so far as to actually merge their newsrooms with their cafes.

9. Host the conversation on Facebook. If I could do it all over again, InJersey’s comments, login, and social features would all be rebuilt on Facebook plugins. That’s not to say you should make the drastic move of ditching your website, like Rockville Central. But there’s no need to build your own social network, as we foolishly attempted.

10. Live in the town. File this under “do as we say, not as we do.” For the most part our reporters didn’t live in the towns they covered. Patch, on the other hand, makes it a requirement that you live where you report. Patch’s way is better.

***

Back when I was prototyping the site in the summer of 2009 with my colleague, Whitney Rhodes (now at Patch), I took great inspiration from Mark Potts’s post-mortem on Backfence (a site whose cemetery I’d be honored to share). His insights guided us in how we approached the site — both from an editorial and community-building standpoint. I hope this will do the same for future hyperlocal entrepreneurs. If we must dub such sites as failures, I just hope we can also see things as Henry Ford did: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

Ted Mann (@turkeymonkey) is Digital Development Director for Gannett NJ, where he leads the online strategy for six newspapers – the Asbury Park Press, Courier-Post, Daily Record, Courier News, Home News Tribune, and The Daily Journal. In addition founding the InJersey.com hyperlocal blog network and working on the core newspaper websites, he also manages a Daily Deal site that spans six counties and the NJ Best Buys local shopping portals.

  • http://www.facebook.com/howardowens Howard Owens

    Up to the point of discussing advertising :) everything you say is correct and matches what we learned in first doing The Batavian as part of a corporate structure and then moving it independent. 

    But in respect, and this message for others as well, if you’re having trouble selling a sufficient amount of local retail advertising, you’re just not doing it right.  There is something wrong either on the sales side or the ad model side.

    Ted, you talk about not having full-time reporters. What about full-time sales staff?

    With GateHouse, we tried bringing in our highly-trained, well qualified online-only sales staff  and we got very little traction.  No fault of the staff, but the local business owners just didn’t warm up to them.  I started to get more traction when I started handling sales myself, but things didn’t really start to bloom until I owned the business.  Then the local owners really warmed up to me as one of them.

    Was your sales staff full-time, dedicated to only this product?  That could be a key factor in what you observed about advertising.

    I think else where you mentioned that one problem was that you didn’t have full-time reporters LIVING in the community they covered.  I think you’re right, that is a problem, and it is a necessity to have your editorial staff living in the communities they cover.

    But I would also argue that it’s a necessity to have your sales person LIVING in the community he or she is selling to.  One sales person per community living in that community.

    Hyperlocal sales (hate that word of course) is all about community, connections and relationships.

    The local restaurant owner needs to see the ad rep not just on sales calls, but for lunch and breakfast, too, and running into him or her at ball games and festivals, etc.  The sales person needs to be as much a part of the community as the editorial staff.
    Where you doing that?

    If not, please don’t spread the false rumor that there isn’t sufficient revenue in local display advertising.

    • http://twitter.com/turkeymonkey Ted Mann

      Howard, I’m so glad you responded, and you’re 100% right: We weren’t doing it right. Especially on the sales side. 

      At various points over the course of the last two years, I lobbied hard for different approaches. 

      At first was the idea of having our reporters become full-time, fully-vested owners of the sites they managed. That is to say, we would give them an ownership stake of around 50% in the sites. They would be paid exclusively based on the revenue the sites generated. We (the Gannett NJ group) would handle the hosting and site upkeep, and they would be responsible for writing, editing, working with freelancers and contributors, and even selling advertising. Basically, it would be the same as backing an entrepreneurial operation such as Thebatavian.com or redbankgreen.com, except they wouldn’t have to deal with the technology piece, and they would get lots of promotion via app.com, the newspaper, etc. 

      I floated this proposal to a room full of publishers back in 2009, and I may as well have just laid a giant fart. The response was swift and dismissive. There was no way we were going to move those reporters over to hyperlocal full time, and there was no way we were going to breach the church/state divide. (I’m sorry to say, nearly all of those folks are no longer with the company, as Gannett has since eliminated many publisher posts.)

      A year or so later, I tried going down this road again, only to discover it was even more riddled with landmines. This time, I simply proposed that the site editors accompany sales reps on calls to advertisers. Just tag along. The reason being that the reps, who I worked with constantly, simply weren’t acquainted enough with the sites. You’re right: The editors should live in the town, the sales folks should live in the town. But most of all: They all need to live and breath the site. Unfortunately, the reps — even the digital specialists, who I helped train — were never as acquainted with our hyperlocals as they needed to be. Only a handful read them regularly.

      When I proposed having the editors and reps join one another on sales blitzes, this time I was challenged by not only the publishers, but also the newspaper editors and the site editors (who I’d thought were on board). It was rough. I tucked my tail between my legs and went back to imploring the reps to sell Freehold InJersey and Woodbridge InJersey again. Which they did, in fits and starts. But it was never enough. 

      As for the “false rumor” that there isn’t enough revenue in local display advertising, I hope I’m wrong. But I believe this to be true for our regional newspaper websites as well; it’s a big part of the reason I’ve worked so hard to launch Groupon clones, er, Daily Deal sites. Beyond that, I believe that our revenue stream should consist of other things — events, classes, conference, and maybe even espressos. 

      Bottom line: I agree with you. Your model works. Maybe not the easiest to copy, and probably still room for improvement, but clearly one of the great shining rays of hyperlocal hope. 

  • http://twitter.com/josemv Jose M. Villar

    Excellent and very informative post. I came accross Injersey long time ago (as buddypress fan I am) and feel very sad you have to shut down. All the best

    • http://twitter.com/turkeymonkey Ted Mann

      Thanks, Jose. If you’re interested in Buddypress and Hyperlocal, be sure to check out h-mag.com, one of the slickest local magazine sites I’ve seen, not to mention a brilliant implementation of Buddypress. 

  • http://twitter.com/mallarytenore Mallary Tenore

    Glad you thought of all these takeaways, Ted. One thing that might be worth expanding on: You say that the site was profitable, but then go on to say that the site didn’t make enough money to pay a full-time staff. Seems contradictory without more context.

    For those interested in finding out more about the challenges InJersey.com faced, and for four other lessons for hyperlocals, here’s a Poynter.org story I interviewed Ted for: http://journ.us/jdmWnj

    ~Mallary Tenore
    Associate editor, Poynter.org

    • http://twitter.com/turkeymonkey Ted Mann

      Good question and point, Mallary. When I say we were profitable, I’ll admit: That’s getting creative with the numbers. We never booked any of the man-hours spent writing and editing InJersey against its costs. Which is to say, our only costs were in development, hosting, and marketing the site. The site editors who worked on InJersey were mostly beat reporters for the towns we covered, and their salaries were always paid for out of the newspaper’s budget. 

      The same is, of course, true of our newspaper.com websites, too (e.g. app.com, dailyrecord.com, etc). We don’t put the reporters salaries (in full or in part) against the profits and losses of those either. 

      As such, it’s tricky measuring the true success of the effort from a financial perspective. My hope had always been that we’d be able to ramp up our coverage, and simultaneously ramp up our ad sales, and ultimately pay for full time editors and full times sales reps. Alas, time (and layoffs in the larger org) weren’t on our side.

  • Mark

    InJersey, at least in South Jersey, was not much more than rehashed news that had (1) already been in Gannett papers or (2) been roundly beaten to the punch by weekly newspapers. Beaten to the punch by weekly newspaper! Think about that! That’s because you “can’t outlocal the locals,” many of which have very dedicated readers have had a long tradition of “engagement” and “hyperlocal” coverage before anyone made up these stupid journalism terms.  InJersey was never “hyperlocal” and it was barely local, operating in just a couple of towns that I ever saw. I have to agree, though, that Gannett’s inability to see that editorial content brings in readers and advertisers has led to its downward slide. The most important thing is still the message, not the medium.

    • http://twitter.com/turkeymonkey Ted Mann

      Ouch, Mark, that hurts. And is also accurate — at least in part. In the last six months, our South Jersey sites — especially Collingswood.InJersey.com and Cherry Hill.InJersey.com — did become empty shells of their former selves, populated almost entirely on regurgitated articles from CourierPostOnline and syndicated blog posts from community sites like Sustainablecherryhill.org. This was due, I’m sorry to say, mostly to previous layoffs at the C-P, and the site’s editor, being diverted to work 100% on updating that site. We made the mistake of essentially putting the sites on auto-pilot. And with last week’s layoffs at Gannett, I feared that we’d be on a path to doing the same for the other sites. 

      However (and this is a big however), when we first launched, the South Jersey sites were OUTSTANDING! Julia Hays was one of our only site editors charged with writing for two towns simultaneously, and she did amazing work. She broke the story of the Westboro Baptist Church protests in Cherry Hill (a pretty big story) before any other media outlets. What’s more, she got the scoop by monitoring Twitter and seeing that the protestors were organizing there. Awesome stuff. 

      Julia was also one of the few hyperlocal reporters I’ve seen that embraced crowdsourcing tools like SeeClickFix to get story ideas. Case in point: When Julia would see interesting issues being posteded on SCF maps, she would often run out and take pictures of the issue in question and follow up on it with the local authorities. She saw a SCF pin complaining about the sorry state of the Cherry Hill municipal tennis courts, took photos of the cracked and nearly unusuable surfaces, and caused something of a commotion in town hall, with the Mayor and town officials ultimately responding on the blog. 

      This was truly outstanding reporting — and “editorial content.” You’re right: the most important thing is the message, and that’s what we set out to excel at. I’m just sad that we weren’t able to keep it up.

  • http://twitter.com/metaprinter Robert Ivan

    “we just had to sell them, create the ads, and schedule it all ourselves”
    so how did you sell?  door to door, emails, phone calls. what was the most successful technique? 

  • Cindycap

    Thanks for the shout-out, Ted, as part of your in.jersey farewell. I was happy to be a part of it, and sad to see it go. You nailed it with the FB plug-ins. FB IS the ultimate hyperlocal. I follow Patch news … and hey, whenever I mention Patch to anyone, the response is “Huh, what, ????” The money AOL spends on Patch vs what they take in? Not even close.

  • Anonymous

    You’ll be back. Too smart not to.

  • http://twitter.com/westseattleblog West Seattle Blog

    #4, #5, and #6 are TREMENDOUSLY important points for anyone who really wants to learn from those who have gone before.  #7 and #8, I disagree. Display advertising IS the revenue stream that exists to be tapped, right now. Maybe someday there will be something else really feasible at this level; right now, there’s not. People are always mentioning “events” and I have to laugh, heartily, loudly. We do organize one per year, Garage Sale Day. We made a few dollars off it this year. If we ran around town charging people $20, $30, $40 for lunches, dinners, seminars, we’d be run out of town. Nobody does that and gets away with it. As for hanging out in a coffee shop … gimmick. We meet people by being where they are, not by expecting them to come to us, whether it be a coffee shop or an office. We report from community meetings, street fairs, waterfront bulkheads when dead whales wash up, the side of the road when cars crash, wherever. And then there’s the desk in the corner of the living room. **** All that said, thank you to Ted, with whom I was not previously familiar (we’re way the hell over here in the NW), for being so candid about the postmortem, offering advice, interacting with commenters, etc. That really is the mark of a talented soul who clearly has another great project right around the corner – Tracy

  • http://twitter.com/Brownstoner Brownstoner

    We just posted this in the comments of Shafer’s article…

    Mr. Shafer seems to have left out at least one example of a local blog that is doing just fine financially: Brownstoner.com, the Brooklyn-based blog that I started over six years ago. We do over 200,000 uniques and over 1.5 million pageviews a month and our revenues can be counted in the hundreds of thousands. We do this with two full-time and two part-time writers and a mix of original and reblogged content that’s probably around the 50/50 mark. The big difference between Brownstoner and most of the sites cited: We have the strategic benefit of having a strong focus on real estate and therefore have been able to focus our revenue-generating efforts on an particular industry that has always been willing to spend to reach the right demographic. Having started and closed a more generalist site about Brooklyn back in 2006, BrooklynRecord.com, I can confirm that trying to sell $100 ads to your local dry cleaners is a good way to go broke, if not insane.

    Jonathan Butler
    Founder/Publisher
    Brownstoner.com

    • http://twitter.com/turkeymonkey Ted Mann

      Thanks for replying Jonathan. I’ve always been a huge fan of the direction you took with Brownstoner. The Brooklyn Flea operation is, I think, a model that all sites should consider — at least in a general sense.

      Can you share any more details about Browstoner’s business model? Do you make much off display advertising? Are there other revenue streams that are working well for you?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=510442241 Mark Pratt

    Thanks for the write-up of your experiences. Just a few things to add.

    The map visualizations you describe are likely just not compelling enough. You can build something that looks cool but isn’t necessarily all that useful. You have to work on these features repeatedly to get it right.

    On a similar note. We run a ready-to-run Cloud Computing Platform designed specifically for Hyper Local and Niche Publishers that is used in places ranging from Vancouver, to Virginia, Berlin to Barcelona.

    http://metropublisher.com

    Since it’s a true cloud system there are zero set-up or sign-up costs. And for the budget you had you could have run it for 2 years (yes that includes hosting). The big deal here really is that you don’t have to build anything anymore these days. The market for vertical solutions is growing in leaps and bounds.

  • Carll

    Lots of valuable thoughts here. Condolences, Ted — I’ve shuttered publications; it’s awful.
    At mainstreetconnect.us, we agree with most of your points. Our difference is that we think to do it right you need to make meaningful money for the guys who have money so they will invest more money. That means offering enough audience to excite regional and major advertisers, enough daily content to attract and maintain an audience, enough reporters to gather content 24/7, enough adequately paid sales professionals to convey your message and bring home the bacon, enough engineers to satisfy the increasingly complicated needs of advertisers and to develop new reader features, enough promotional budget and savvy to get noticed, enough community relations folks to support the communities we serve, enough financial and analytics chops to measure performance and control costs, enough monitoring and mentoring capacity to assure reliable performance and assess best practices, and above all, a whole-hearted commitment to digital media, no matter the platform. All of these cost money — and the more sites one produces, the more money they cost. On March 24, 2010, we launched our first site, thedailynorwalk.com. Today, we have 51 sites in Westchester (NY),  Fairfield (CT), and Worcester County (MA). We see 350K monthly unique visitors, and we are a few months from being cash positive. We employ 110 people full-time (with equity and benefits), more than half of them news-gatherers and editors. A year from now we will be ten times our current size. In a lifetime of community journalism, I have learned that there’s no free press unless it’s a profitable press — us news folks have to eat to. At Main Street Connect, we are committed to offering high-quality community news to thousands of American towns, villages, and small cities, and to make money doing it. We are becoming a big business — not because we want to be a big business, but because we believe that the economic dynamics of the medium require scale in order to make real money. We may be wrong, but that’s our bet.

    Keep fighting the good fight.  Carll

  • photog

    “We meet people by being where they are, not by expecting them to come to us, whether it be a coffee shop or an office.” As a photographer for both newspaper and hyperlocal venues, countless times I have thought ‘I wish the reporter could be here to see this for themselves’. I often have felt that, sometimes, I am the sole representative of my employer – and people respond to me, they are always so glad to have me at their event! this peronal contact is what community is all about and hyperlocal IS all about community. but you gotta be present. (and not just the photographer! )

  • T Cotter

    Hyperlocal sites are trying to convert readers into contributors but readers are mostly looking to get information not give it.

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