Journal-Register’s Brady: Local Advertisers Have a Tech Gap

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Jim Brady made a name for himself turning into a serious player on the Web before he went to last year, going all in on hyperlocal. But when TBD shifted its strategy last fall, slashing staff and refocusing its content, Brady was among those who left. In March, he was scooped up by Journal-Register Company, which has been a leader in transforming local papers into digital properties.

Street Fight recently spoke with Brady about the future of hyperlocal, including mobile’s key role, the hold daily deals companies have on the local ad market and why Patch should be applauded.

What does “hyperlocal” mean these days? How has the idea evolved?
I think the word “hyperlocal” has become meaningless, to be honest. It’s the 2011 version of what “convergence” was in the early 2000s. It’s a buzzword that people use without thinking about it what it means. The word “hyperlocal” was used to describe Loudoun Extra, which served a community of about 300,000 people. The word “hyperlocal” was used to describe, which covered a community of more than 5 million. At this pace, it’s only a matter of time before is described as “hyperlocal.” When words lose their meaning like that, it’s better to stop using them altogether. I’d rather stop worrying about syntax and address the issue of how we can improve community-specific journalism.

What is your sense of what local businesses want from hyperlocal? How about news consumers?
Local businesses want one thing over everything else: customers in their stores. There are very few local advertisers who do branding campaigns online. They want foot traffic in their stores. And small businesses that may consist of only one shop know that reaching the people who live and work near that area is crucial. Between the web and mobile, there are plenty of ways to reach those potential customers digitally. But many of those small local advertisers aren’t even advertising on the web yet, so the gap between what technology makes possible and what local advertisers are familiar with is quite large. But that gap will close over time, and that’s why experimenting with community-specific journalism now is crucial. The money will come, but when it does, you’ll need to be there with a viable sales pitch to get any of it.

As for news consumers, they want one thing from community-specific journalism: relevant information about whatever geographic areas are important to them. But you need to bat a high average to keep the consumer engaged. If you deliver information about road construction that saves them an hour during a commute home, you just hit a home run. If you deliver them information about road construction two miles away from the route they take home, you just whiffed. That’s why we chose to do all our curation at TBD using live human beings. We didn’t feel comfortable that we could deliver a high enough percentage of relevant info using pure automation.

Between the web and mobile, there are plenty of ways to reach those potential customers digitally. But the gap between what technology makes possible and what local advertisers are familiar with is quite large.

Is there any future in paid local content (either journalism, information, or aggregated feeds)?
I think it’s possible, but a product has to clear a high bar to get people to pay. Once you get down to covering one or two communities, you’re dealing with a pretty small consumer base to start with, so I’d argue you’re better off getting them engaged in the site and then selling display or classified ads onto the site, as opposed to getting readers to pay. I like what Village Soup is doing in Maine. They have a bunch of small, simple ads on their home pages that seem to be selling by the dozen. It’s a nice, simple approach that doesn’t get into complicated CPM-based sales. I think that kind of model — on mobile as well as the web — is better than trying to charge.

Is there a particular area that local sites should be putting their energy into (rich databases vs. high school sports vs. place-based mobile news feeds)?
I think databases are crucial for local sites. If you can succeed in making a local site an ATM of sorts for that community (when I need something, I automatically go there), then you’re on the way to winning. And mobile is the future, especially for local. I say that because mobile gives us one amazing piece of data about most of our consumers: Their exact location at a specific point in time. That’s amazing data to have when it comes to delivering news, traffic, weather alerts, public transportation times, yard sale locations, advertising, etc. But, in the end, the one thing all local sites need to be successful is a relationship with its audience. Not a relationship where the consumer uploads pictures of their dachshund, or where the consumer posts a comment that gets no response. One in which they are participants in the conversation on the site and, more importantly, in the journalistic process. Without that relationship and collaboration, it’ll be hard for a community-specific site to be successful journalistically or financially.

How are daily deals sites like Groupon and Living Social changing the local online equation (in terms of their now-proven ability to reach small advertisers)?
Well, they’ve proved that you can reach small local advertisers, despite a decade of people claiming that those advertisers will never play on the web. So that’s promising. But Groupon and Living Social have the lion’s share of the revenue in that space, and it’ll be a while before that’ll change. The real win will come when a news company comes up with “the next big idea” before anyone else. That’s how to make the big bucks. But the deck is stacked against us. When it comes to digital innovation, we tend to be followers in media, partially because of the innovator’s dilemma and partially because of our risk-averse cultures.

Who do you think is “winning” hyperlocal right now, whether in terms of an individual, company or type of business (mobile v. blogs, e.g.)?
I think there are a bunch of terrific community-specific sites around the country, but it’s patchwork — no pun intended. There are some communities with multiple good sites/blogs, and then there are huge swaths of the country that don’t have anyone doing it well. So I don’t think anyone’s “won” yet. I applaud Patch for what its trying to do, despite the whining from some in the media about it. They’re hiring journalists, and they’re trying something ambitious. Good for them. We need more of that. I have no idea whether it’ll work or not, but it’s a fascinating experiment. And I like what companies like and SeeClickFix are doing. But as for who’s “winning,” I say no one. Except Charlie Sheen, of course.