Westchester's Hyperlocal News Market Is a Four-Sided Shootout | Street Fight

Westchester’s Hyperlocal News Market Is a Four-Sided Shootout

Westchester’s Hyperlocal News Market Is a Four-Sided Shootout

Prestigious, affluent Westchester County, just north of New York City, is on the verge of becoming a hyperlocal version of the  Gunfight at OK Corral – squared.

Within months, four major-media companies will be competing community by community for dominance in this prized media market. Three have already holstered up and are blazing away — Gannett, AOL’s Patch and MainStreetConnect. And now Cablevision/Newsday is planting a flag in the county, joining this one-of-a-kind digital shootout.

Westchester is a high-contrast mix of storied suburbs (like Sleepy Hollow, the inspiration for Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Ossining, the home of Mad Men’s Don Draper and his family) and financially challenged cities (White Plains, Yonkers, New Rochelle, Mount Vernon). The county’s population of 941,000 spends $17 billion annually on retail. Poverty is below the national average – 9% vs. 15.3%. But Westchester is not white-bread: 21.8% of the population is Hispanic, 14.6% is black, and 25% is foreign-born. All this adds up to the potential for a steady, rich flow of news from 48 well-defined cities, towns and villages whose colonial heritage sits side-by-side with the headquarters of IBM, Pepsico and six other Fortune 500 companies.

If any of the four big-media competitors in Westchester becomes dominant or gains a distinct edge, the victor could have a template to do the same in scores of other top markets up for grabs in the still-emerging local/hyperlocal digital space. The ultimate prize for a workable, scalable model could be the lion’s share of the billions of dollars of ad revenue that are steadily migrating from “legacy” media – print newspapers and local TV – to community-centric digital space.

Gannett was in Westchester first. It acquired nine independent papers in Westchester and neighboring Putnam County in 1964, and in 1998 consolidated them and one additional purchase into the new daily/Sunday Journal News. But the consolidation came as the new post-baby-boom generation – the millennials – was turning away from print newspapers and toward the then-new Internet for its news. Five years ago, responding to a steady decline in its circulation, the Journal News launched a Web version – LoHud, for Lower Hudson Valley – that presents news tailored to 25 communities in Westchester.

If any of the four big-media competitors in Westchester becomes dominant or gains a distinct edge, the victor could have a template to do the same in scores of other top markets.

LoHud had a lock on the Web in Westchester, but that didn’t last long. Beginning in 2010, Patch and MainStreetConnect both launched competing “pure-play” hyperlocals. These sites, not constrained by the “legacy” traditions of print newspapers, were among the initial building blocks of digital networks that AOL and MainStreetConnect plan to extend nationally. MSC has 32 sites in Westchester and Patch, 22. They go head to head with LoHud in 17 communities.

(There are several other community-based sites in Westchester, but they don’t have the resources to compete with the four major-medias. The four-year-old independent TheLoop, which covers Larchmont, Mamaroneck and lower Westchester, says “we are more interested in the issues that surround them and what you are talking about.” Seven-year-0ld Westchester.com, another “indie,” runs press releases as its content.  Its story on the Westchester County Board of Legislators adopting the 2012 budget was a virtually verbatim press release from the BoL. The American Towns network covers Westchester with mostly press releases.)

Newsday – the division of Cablevision that will operate the Westchester sites – has parceled out selective but telling nuggets of information about what it will bring to the competition. It will, for example, cover Westchester communities on multiple digital platforms – the iPhone, iPad and Android apps as well as the Web. LoHud and MainStreetConnect have only websites; Patch has an iPhone app, but no tablet apps.

Newsday also said it would utilize Cablevision’s Channel 12 – whose service region includes Westchester  – and Cablevision’s MSG Varsity network featuring coverage of Westchester school sports, arts and other activities, as well as Newsday’s amNewYork, the free-circulation paper handed out to New York City-bound commuters. Newsday will be able to mix and match these three sister multi-media products with its new Westchester digital network as a potentially attractive triple advertising cross-sell – print, TV and digital – in Cablevision-Newsday’s broader metro market of Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey as well as Westchester and the Hudson Valley.

Perhaps most important, Newsday announced that its Westchester market entry will be overseen by Debby Krenek, who heads digital operations for Cablevision-Newsday’s Local Media Group. Krenek – a 1955 baby boomer – advanced to the highest editorial ranks of top metropolitan newspapers in both the print and digital eras. She was editor in chief at Newsday and, earlier, the New York Daily News. It was under her editorship that Newsday adopted a 100% paywall where subscriptions were ingeniously baked into the fees that Long Island cable TV subscribers pay to major metro system provider Cablevision. (Critics scoffed that early on only 35 customers signed up for the $5-a-week-Newsday online fee, but more than 112,000  Cablevision subscribers opted for their baked-in, no-additional-charge Newsday Web sub, giving the paper one of the largest paid [depending on how you define “paid”] Web circulations nationally.)

Krenek has named an editor to manage the Westchester sites, Diane Goldie, editor of amNewYork.  But as head of all Cablevision-Newsday’s digital operations, Krenek will undoubtedly be making the strategy calls for this big move.

Facing three already established and well-financed competitors, her challenge will be to scope out a hyperlocal network that is more than a digital version of a print newspaper. That’s essentially what LoHud, MainStreetConnect and Patch are, despite their digital bells and whistles. MSC and Patch are better designed than stodgy LoHud, but all three networks  mostly do what print versions of community newspapers have traditionally done — monitor police and fire incident reports, cover selected public meetings, repackage press releases, and periodically showcase energetic community doers, preferably the unsung ones. It’s all admirable, but the product is basically “commodity” news that doesn’t engage users sufficiently to keep them on  the site and clicking multiple pages – and ads. If you live, say, in Scarsdale or White Plains and want to know how well your community is performing based on key indicators, like housing, schools and jobs and economy  – especially in these difficult economic times – you won’t find many answers amid the jumble of headlines and images that define LoHud, MSC and Patch’s pages. It’s all a multi-colored blur.

Newsday will bring 25 new editors, reporters and “digital content specialists” to Westchester. Numerically, that’s about the same staffing complement that each of its competitors are deploying. What Krenek will have to do to succeed is disrupt the prevailing journalistic model, leavening commodity news with stickier social content that’s a collaboration between journalists and a fully engaged community. Since Washington Irving’s day, Westchester has never lacked for writing talent.

Will Krenek be the Wyatt Earp of the gunfight at the Westchester corral?  She was born, raised and began her rise in big-league newspapers in Texas, where Earp spent time preparing for his big career move in Tombstone, Ariz., in 1881. That should provide at least a partial answer.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.