Kara Hadge is a guest author. If you’d like to submit a guest post, click here.
When New Columbia Heights blogger Andrew Wiseman was asked by one of his readers to recommend some good neighborhood breakfast options, he posted the question on his site to see what others had to say. When another reader replied with a recommendation for a local grill, Wiseman tried it out and then blogged his review in return, establishing a back-and-forth with the community. So while the editor of a hyperlocal site is its focal point, sometimes he or she can be the least important person to its success.
The true value of a hyperlocal site is its audience, but eyeballs alone aren’t enough. To create a thriving hyperlocal site today, an editor needs to attract and hold the attention of an engaged readership. Even more importantly, to sustain a hyperlocal site with limited resources, that audience needs to play an active role in providing and responding to its content.
In writing my Master’s thesis this spring at Georgetown University, I studied one neighborhood in Northwest Washington, D.C. — Columbia Heights — to learn how its residents use a variety of hyperlocal media, available on multiple platforms, and to determine what kind of people followed these media. I defined hyperlocal media broadly, looking at some of the first media to evolve — neighborhood list-servs — as well as the blogs, Twitter feeds, and still-emerging Facebook pages that have sprung up over the last decade. Even focusing on just one urban neighborhood with a population of 32,000, I wasn’t able to uncover and analyze every single source during my months of research. Furthermore, most of the media I did find were citizen-led or edited by residents who held other day jobs. (Only one blogger — Dan Silverman of Prince of Petworth, arguably the best-known neighborhood blog in D.C. — blogs full-time, and even he doesn’t consider himself a journalist, despite the fact that he often breaks news.)
But by looking at a wide variety of media, it became clear that to start a successful hyperlocal site, you have to understand what niche you plan to fill within the existing media landscape. Will you be the one who tweets breaking news about local restaurants as it unfolds? Or the blogger who posts Craigslist ads for neighborhood homes to debate the fairness of their prices? Or even just the one who keeps an eagle eye for a mention of the neighborhood anywhere else online?
To start a successful hyperlocal site, you have to understand what niche you plan to fill within the existing media landscape.
In studying the content of hyperlocal media versus that of WashingtonPost.com, I found that hyperlocal sites bested mainstream media in their coverage of neighborhood politics (which accounted for 19.3% of hyperlocal media coverage), crime (10.9% of coverage), real estate (5.7% of coverage), and events (6.7% of coverage). Many of the hyperlocal media played to these strengths, with list-servs including plenty of events and political information and blogs breaking news on restaurants and crime (with some crossover among all media). Furthermore, coverage of these subjects met readers’ demand for it: 90.9% of survey respondents turned to hyperlocal media for coverage of local events, while 81% looked for news about crime in the urban neighborhood I studied. Political and real estate coverage were also highly sought-after by a majority of users.
Of course, not everyone follows every medium, so as a new hyperlocal blogger, how do you reach those who have been following neighborhood list-servs? One of the community organizations I looked at in my study managed cross-platform content particularly effectively, especially for a one-man volunteer effort. The North Columbia Heights Civic Association (NCHCA) relies primarily upon its Yahoo! Group-powered list-serv to disseminate information and updates, but it also has a blog and automatically publishes new posts to a linked Facebook page. More recently, the NCHCA has even started posting trivia questions about the neighborhood to Facebook, offering free t-shirts to the first who answers correctly. With minimal extra effort, the NCHCA manages to reach a broad cross-section of people who use multiple platforms, and create engagement that can translate into offline participation.
It’s not just news about offline events that people need, though. Information comes in all forms, and sometimes what hyperlocal media do best is provide an online conversation space for an offline community. At the same time, because no single individual can convey everything relevant to a neighborhood — even if it covers just a few city blocks — the best hyperlocal producers know to tap into the public for more information. The reason this worked in Columbia Heights is because the people who followed and contributed to the most hyperlocal media (via comments, e-mails to a list-serv, et cetera) are those who have lived in the neighborhood the longest and who are most active in the offline community. More specifically, 77.6% of survey respondents who showed a high level of offline engagement in their community had commented, posted, or otherwise contributed to a hyperlocal media source, and 75% of respondents who showed a high level of offline community engagement had lived in Columbia Heights for 10 years or more. Furthermore, people who follow or contribute to four or more hyperlocal sites are more likely to show a high level of offline engagement.
Sometimes what hyperlocal media do best is provide an online conversation space for an offline community. At the same time … the best hyperlocal producers know to tap into the public for more information.
Plenty of information is sent out via list-servs from this group of active contributors, but the Prince of Petworth blog stands out among other hyperlocal media because it focuses on facilitating conversation. Blogger Dan Silverman told me he views his role as that of a facilitator, “connecting people that would normally never be connected, that would normally never have a conversation,” and to do this, he said, building trust with readers is paramount. So Silverman posts a twice-weekly open thread to let people “rant and/or revel” in whatever they like, and he even hosts the occasional happy hour to meet his readers in different neighborhoods around the city. Even though Silverman averages 15 to 20 posts a day, the sometimes informative, sometimes controversial, always vibrant comment threads give readers a reason to keep coming back to the site throughout the day. Over the course of my three-day content analysis, his site had 486 comments on 30 blog posts, compared with 7 comments on 3 articles about Columbia Heights on WashingtonPost.com
Sometimes, though, the best thing you can do as a hyperlocal producer is just make sense of all the conversation that’s already out there. No one has time to comb through all the Twitter feeds, list-servs, blogs, Facebook pages, and other sources of chatter to find the latest update on, say, the neighborhood’s planned dog park (although I tried to bring together many of these sources in a super-timeline of hyperlocal media in Columbia Heights aggregated using Dipity). The difficulty with relying on hyperlocal media that are citizen-generated is the lack of an impartial, editorial voice to point out contributors’ biases. Sometimes bloggers — like Wiseman at New Columbia Heights, for example — can add value just by contextualizing the conversation. It’s a useful addition without involving quite the same effort as reporting, and when your resources for a hyperlocal start-up are limited, that can be one sustainable way to contribute something valuable to the hyperlocal media landscape.
Developing a strong product is the crucial first step to making a sustainable hyperlocal business. By building a strong sense of community and tapping into the vast knowledge of an engaged public, hyperlocal sites can sell themselves as a resident’s best neighbor.
Kara Hadge is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer and soon-to-be-graduate of the Communication, Culture, and Technology Master’s program at Georgetown University. You can read her thesis at https://commons.georgetown.edu/blogs/networkedneighborhood/.