According to BuzzMachine blogger and author Jeff Jarvis, AOL’s Patch did hyperlocal scale all wrong: “What they should have been was a sales network for local sites,” he said during a conversation with CBS Local Digital Media President Ezra Kucharz at Street Fight Summit last month. “If that existed, other local sites would have been able to start. It would have led to mass opportunity. … They didn’t do that because they wanted to own it all.”
In fact, Jarvis sees opportunity in hyperlocal wherever he looks: “A beat can be a business. You can cover a town, a group, a sports team. It’s a scale that’s a lifestyle business for one or two people. It’s not going to make Ezra pant with jealousy, but it does say that you can have these things scattered around. In New Jersey, we have dozens of these sites,” he said, citing one of his students who started a successful hyperlocal site in the town of Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Kucharz, who runs CBS’s local digital products, wasn’t as hot on these sorts of beat-driven sites: “I wouldn’t recommend someone trying to build their own news organization and trying to compete that way. It’s just too expensive,” Kucharz said. “The passion play doesn’t typically work in this type of journalism.”
The CBS network of sites have tried hyperlocal, says Kucharz, but find that it’s difficult because of the audience. “It has to be a really great story or something that people really care about. What we’ve found is that not enough people care about the smaller stories to make the economics work,” he said.
But as it stands now, hyperlocal scale remains very difficult, said Kucharz: “A lot of these companies will try to go out and sell hyperlocal — they find it’s a lot harder than everybody thinks. And so their answer is ‘We’ll get all this reach at a local level and go to a national brand and show them that reach.’ They are effectively selling a national network.”
It’s also an issue of data. Small sites and publishers need to do a better job of collecting data that they can sell: “Google knows where I live and where I work. We’ve got to fix that. That’s a valuable signal,” Jarvis said, noting that the value of in market traffic versus out of market is 25x in some cases. “I say screw big data. We need small data. That would enable us to target both advertising and content with relevance at a higher value.”
In the end, however, perhaps it’s not about scale as much as it is about building something that can work for the long term: “I care about sustainability,” Jarvis said. “I don’t just care about building big things. I’m trying to train people who can make their own jobs.”
Noah Davis is a senior editor at Street Fight.