Ted Mann made a lot of smart points in his recent post on the lessons he learned from two years running inJersey, a network of 17 hyper-local blogs across the Garden State. Many are givens if you want any chance of success: Build cheap websites on WordPress and BuddyPress? Natch. Live in the town you cover? Duh! Maps are not really useful? Not surprising — people look at them but don’t click on them (unless they’re checking their neighbors’ property values). But in general, Ted offers up an excellent primer for hyper-local startups.
That said, there was one big, simple and very important takeaway from his column: Your hyperlocal effort is only as good as your editors or writers. In a small town, having a single, passionate voice who is prolific and visible in the community can make the difference between flourishing and folding.
I am referring, of course, to Colleen Curry, who come from seemingly nowhere and became the star attraction at the top-performing Freehold site (as well as a reporter at the Asbury Park Press). Colleen was tenacious, versatile and constantly out and about. She covered the courts and school boards, did regular beat and feature writing, and hung out a whimsical shingle in the local coffee shop: a cardboard sign proclaiming “The Journalist is In.”
Her work stands in breathtaking contrast to that being done by big-city dailies these days. Wave after wave of cuts has so battered the big guys that reporters have told me they don’t leave the building unless they have to because of the constant deadline grind. (Gannett, to its credit, has been aggressive about giving reporters home or mobile offices, allowing them to work where they live and file from the field. I’m sure this also saves money on reduced office space).
So what kind of a difference can a Colleen make in a small town? Freehold posted 65,000 pageviews and 47,000 unique users in a single month and was a top performer in the inJersey network. That’s not much for a big city for for a town of just north of 11,000 souls, the number is quite impressive. That penetration and readership easily rivals the impressions of a small-town daily. Not to say that a hyper-local site would be as profitable as a small-town daily could have been in print’s heyday. But this is clear evidence that the site became a place people visited regularly enough that it starts to matter.
I have no idea whether the economics of inJersey could support over the talent like Colleen over the long run. That she ended up going on to become USA Today’s New Jersey correspondent speaks volumes about where the real money in the media business still lies. But it’s possible that the way to support someone like Colleen is in a throwback model to the days when a husband and wife ran the local newspaper and together they did everything. They made a nice living sometimes. More about why I think that model, and not the model of big chains, may be more viable in the near-term in my next column on this topic.