Ned Berke didn’t plan to become a hyperlocal publishing mini-mogul. Like many things in the hyperlocal world, it just happened. He started Sheepshead Bites as a way to write humorously about his Brooklyn neighborhood, but it soon morphed into a community news source and a full-time job. L Magazine called him the Best Local Blogger in 2010.
Berke is also one of the 22 founders of a hyperlocal trade organization and is working to supports sustainable business models in local media. Last year, he wrote a manifesto about why hyperlocal is important and how to do it right. Nine months later, Street Fight got in touch to ask how things had changed since then. Berke talked about building a business, balancing the dual roles of editor and publisher, and the problems (and successes) of scale.
What are some of the surprising things that have happened since you launched Sheepshead Bites?
That’s a tough question, mainly because when I started it, I hadn’t intended it to be a business. I’m just piecing it together.
I started it more to write in humorous ways about the neighborhood — not really to do news. I found myself slipping into news because that’s what my background is in, and the community needed it and wanted it. It’s just been keeping things together since then. Luckily, there’s a great community for me to fall back on, both the local community and the publishing community — people like Howard Owens and Dylan Smith. I talk to these people all the time, and they are a great resource.
It started out as a creative outlet, and then turned into “I need work and can’t find work, so I’m going to start selling advertising, start professionalizing it, start building up the traffic.”
In terms of what’s surprising, I don’t know. Every day is a surprise. Sometimes it’s problems. Sometimes it’s pleasant surprises like the Boing Boing mention, but overall it’s hard work. I knew it was going to be hard work, but it’s rewarding work.
I certainly don’t hear people talking about Patch in communities in Brooklyn.
There’s a bigger community of hyperlocal editors and publishers who are trying to figure this out from a editorial and revenue perspective. How do you all interact?
One of the big facilitators of that, and they definitely deserve the credit, is the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Patterson Foundation. They brought together the Block-by-Block Conference, which was the first thing that brought us together into the same room. Some of us had exchanged emails and chatted with each other, but it was the first time we had packed a room and we could see how many people were doing this. To be able to talk about problems and successes together, and to have that real world network was a huge help. Since then, we are in the process of developing a trade association. The infrastructure is forming. Certainly the sentiment is that we need each other, we all like each other, and we need to support each other. That’s what we’re doing.
Can this scale? Do you see a time when you’re franchising out the model?
Local doesn’t scale. That’s the line, right? And as easy as it is to fall back on that, it is the truth. It really doesn’t. You can’t use a template for a small town in Utah, put it down in the middle of Brooklyn, and have it work. Patch is discovering that. Whatever successes they might be having in towns that might be similar, when they tried to go into the inner-city like Brooklyn, I don’t think their engagement is very good. I don’t have an insider eye there, so I can’t really speak, but that’s just the way it seems to me. I certainly don’t hear people talking about Patch in communities in Brooklyn.
In terms of franchising out, there are a set of practices and a set of strategies that work overall. They work in some places and not others. A good editor and a good publisher who know the community they are trying to go into is going to know which strategies to use. It’s good to know everything that’s going on, but at the same time, you can only deploy certain ones to certain communities. I do think that at the end of the day, as certain revenue streams open up and fill out, these operations will support more and more reporters and employees in general. I do think that the old model of giant newsrooms for communities is gone. I don’t think it’s doable. But I don’t think it’s necessary, either.
If we’re ever at the point where we have 100 percent penetration, that would be amazing, but it wouldn’t stop me from doing what I’m doing. It would just mean that I can make an even better living off of it.
It seems like you’re doing the work of, if not an entire newsroom, certainly what three or four reporters would have done 10 or 15 years ago.
Well, yes and no. I don’t think it’s always going to be that way where I’m going to be doing all the work. [Laughs] We’ve begun hiring more people on a part-time basis to take over more and more of my responsibilities as the revenue becomes available. And that’s going well.
It’s a little bit different. I don’t think I’m doing that much more than a full-time community reporter did 15 years ago. They didn’t work typical 9-to-5s. They were pounding pavement, and they were never well paid. Our volume is a little bit more but our article length is less. At least for my model, there’s a blend of original reporting, curated content, and features that fill in the newshole that a weekly would have done 15 years ago.
Where does this go from here? Do you worry about getting to a point where you can’t get any bigger?
Nope. What are you going to do? Do you think any other newspaper out there goes “Well, we’ve attracted all the advertising that we can and we’re now at full circulation. It doesn’t make sense to do more and we can’t really afford to do more, so let’s just close up shop?” No. We’re already at the point where we have deep penetration into the market and if we’re ever at the point where we have 100 percent penetration, that would be amazing, but it wouldn’t stop me from doing what I’m doing. It would just mean that I can make an even better living off of it.
There is always more that you can do. There are verticals that we haven’t explored yet that I would love to explore. We have set up a second site. We are in another neighborhood now. [Editor's note: Bensonhurst Bean.] But that’s not really my goal. I don’t want to have 15 sites covering all of Brooklyn or to set this up around the country. I set it up there because it’s a neighborhood that’s similar to mine that is facing the same challenges. They had absolutely no voice, just like there was no publication in Sheepshead Bay when I started.
Noah Davis is a senior editor at Street Fight.