Like many major media companies that have tried to go hyperlocal, the New York Times’ efforts at small-scale online journalism have been notably mixed. Its main initiative in recent years, The Local, (several small blogs focused on a couple of towns in New Jersey and the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill neighborhood in Brooklyn), launched in 2009 as a section of NYTimes.com, staffed by professional journalists. Due to financial cuts, in January 2010, the blogs changed management, and lost their Times staffers. Baristanet took over the New Jersey outlets, CUNY’s j-school oversees the Fort Greene Local, and NYU’s journalism program handles a subsequently launched East Village version. The blogs are still affiliated with the Times.
Mary Ann Giordano, an editor who oversaw the Times’ recent forays into hyperlocal, continues to provide suggestions and work with the editors of The Local. Over the past year, however, she has spent most of her time focusing on SchoolBook, an ambitious effort to use data and community input to create a conversation space and resource for the New York school system. SchoolBook — like the several Local sites before it — is an experiment. But the important thing is that the Times is willing to take a risk.
Street Fight spoke with Giordano about the past, present, and future of the Times’ hyperlocal efforts; her hopes for Patch; and why the Times is in the hyperlocal game “from a distance.”
How have the Times’ recent hyperlocal efforts gone, particularly as regards The Locals?
We did pretty well in getting things going. People really liked the idea of a news source. We ran The Locals for almost a full year when there were cutbacks here, but we really were devoted to the sites and the news. We wanted to keep it going, so for Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, we found a partner in CUNY, at the Graduate School of Journalism. They’ve been running the site day-to-day in partnership with us. We could not find a similar partner for the New Jersey site.
We just felt after six months of running it on our own that we weren’t really developing it. We didn’t have the resources to learn anything new. These sites, from the beginning, were supposed to be laboratories for experiments, on every level. We wanted to shut that down. But then again, we’d been talking to NYU for a while, and we opened the East Village site that is run with the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU.
Are there any more neighborhood blogs on the horizon, or plans for other hyperlocal projects?
Not right now. We need someone to figure out a very good business model.
Since then, the Locals have hired editors. They’ve hired a reporter each, and they work with the students. They’ve incorporated the Locals into their curriculum and they have built events around the Locals. The schools integrate the New York Times journalists into their teaching, so it’s a good situation for us because we love these sites and we think we can still do more things with them.
Right now the sites are doing very well. I think we’re still, like everyone else, waiting to see what the business model would be for the sites. We have to think that way these days, unfortunately.
The Locals did feed into the conversations we had about creating a site where we could really surface the incredible data that we have about the schools. We talked about having a site where people can talk about the data. They can talk about their schools. We can cover news in more depth on schools. And that bred SchoolBook, which is what I spent most of my time, for now, running day-to-day.
What is SchoolBook all about?
It’s a blog and a news source: a database broken down for 2,500 schools in New York City. It’s a place where we’re trying to really push community engagement. We’ve created the school pages so that they’re kind of like Facebook, where anybody from each school can go in and post notices, photographs; ask a question; share information about some tip or some teacher or some program coming up.
It has been four months since we started SchoolBook. We’ve done very well with the blog. I think people like it. It’s a good source of news. There are other sources of news, but everybody wants more about school, so people embraced this. Now, we’re really trying to push forward on some of the community engagement things. For that, we are in partnership with WNYC. They are masters of getting people to respond to queries and provide information. We want to get to the point where a lot of our journalism will be informed by what people in our communities are telling us.
Is that something that you’re trying to monetize?
I think that we’re open to advertising, and I’m sure that we’ll have more of a business plan going forward, as we get through the difficult period of a startup. You get your rhythm, you get your systems in place, and sometimes, being inside a big institution doesn’t always help. In some areas, it does, but sometimes, it just makes it a little clunkier, so we’re still in that phase. We’re a house still being built.
Going back to the Locals, the sites are run by the j-schools but produced “in collaboration with The New York Times, which provides supervision to ensure that the blog maintains a partial reporting base, thorough and rooted in Times standards.” Can you explain a little bit about what that all means?
We meet regularly with the editors and with the administrators at the schools. We answer questions and deal with issues that arise, journalistic and otherwise, all the time. I am not in there editing the posts like I used to be when I first started these two sites. I try not to nitpick. No one wants that. They have a lot of control over it. I think that we started off with them very clearly understanding Times standards and we really tried to make them the editors. We brought them in, we let them live in the newsroom for a few days to meet people, and get a sense of how things work here.
From the beginning, CUNY and NYU came in right away understanding that they now were aligned with certain image standards, level of quality. They don’t always attain it, but there are times when the Times won’t attain it. You do the best you can with the students. We’re very impressed with both schools: by their high level of standards and how much they took to heart their partnership with the New York Times.
Are there any more neighborhood blogs on the horizon, or plans for other hyperlocal projects?
Not right now. We need someone to figure out a very good business model. I know that Patch is trying very hard; they’re having some success. We’d love to see them succeed because we think we can. Let me put it this way: a lot of community bloggers are hoping to find a way to make a living because it’s a really fun way to do journalism.
We’re not going to move in that direction right now until there is a very clear business model for it. We get a lot of requests, particularly when we started up, people begging us to start one of these in their town. Everybody wants journalists. It was very heartening. It was a time when a lot of newspapers were closing and a lot of journalists were getting laid off, and here were all these people. And there was a lot of writing about how journalism was dead and nobody needs journalism any more, yet there were all these people who were reaching out and saying: come cover our town. Come write about what we’ve got going on here.
The question is, is there enough of a demand that you could make money and sustain yourself? It’s harder to sustain yourself when you’re the New York Times. If you’re a community blogger and you live in the neighborhood, you’re working out of your home. You pay yourself a salary. You can probably live off of it. Can that sustain a New York Times journalist and the salesperson? Not yet. Maybe someday it will, you know?
You mentioned Patch. A.) Do you think it’s is going to work? And B.) If not, is the monetization of hyperlocal the kind of thing we figure out in a year or five years or when?
That would be the golden question. Everybody is wondering what and when. Honestly, we really hope that Patch does figure it out because it will employ a lot of journalists. We would like that.
I get a Google Alert for “hyperlocal.” This time last year, this stories were: it’s the year for hyperlocal. The headlines this year are: it’s the year for hyperlocal. Who knows? Maybe when the economy improves, it will be like a Rubik’s cube where things fit into place and it will work. I’m wishing Patch all the luck in the world, and I hope we can all learn from them.
So, 2012 either is the year for hyperlocal or isn’t the year?
It’s the question. The New York Times is still in it, though. From a distance, but we are because we learned a lot. We wouldn’t be doing this community engagement stuff and wouldn’t have moved in the direction of SchoolBook if we hadn’t had that experience under our belt: if we didn’t learn some things about what works and what doesn’t. So, the Local stuff was very, very rewarding for us on a journalistic level. Hopefully, we’ll build on it.
Noah Davis is senior editor at Street Fight. He previously covered media at mediabistro.com and Business Insider as well as during multiple stints of full-time freelancing. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, NYMag.com, Wired.com, SportsIllustrated.com, and many other publications.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.