The ‘Wishes and Dreams’ of Hyperlocal News Consumers

Give me the news about my neighborhood, please,” wrote Marshall Kirkpatrick in March on Read, Write,Web. “Give me the restaurant reviews, the crime reports, the events listings, the gossip. Give me the art and the music I can find if I walk out my door. Give me a robot that finds the news stories too small for almost anyone else to care about. I care about what’s happening in the neighborhood around me and I want to see the fabulous new technologies of open government data, online news syndication, social networking and data mining all put to service to fulfill hyperlocal news wishes and dreams I didn’t even know I had yet.

What Kirkpatrick wants in his hyperlocal news is very close to the hot new thing in health care – “observations of daily living.” ODL is a record of  a patient’s “daily feelings, thoughts, moods and behaviors.”  Collectively the information can provide a good picture of the patient’s overall health as well as  help resolve a specific ailment or other issue far more effectively than the patient’s 10-minute visit with the busy doctor, health care researchers say. ODL data is easy for the patient to generate and manage because it can be punched in with an easy-to-use graphical app on an iPhone or other smart device and uploaded to the doctor, who can, in turn, share it with other care providers.

What would ODL be if it were applied to the news of a community?

It would, for sure, include things that Kirkpatrick lists, but also showcase engagement-rich “new news” — a content cocktail of data, journalism and “wisdom of the crowd” tailored to personal preferences.

Say you’re a 43-year-old stay-at-home mother in Reston – a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. – with two children in the local public schools (a girl in 5th grade and a boy in 9th grade). You want to know a lot about what’s going on at your children’s two schools; how well they’re performing compared to schools in neighboring Oakton and Oak Hill (where you have friends) as well as communities elsewhere in the region, especially those with similar demographics. You’re especially interested in the Fairfax County public school system’s individualized learning programs because your 15-year-old boy is having a pattern of problems with math even though he does well in other courses. The status of Reston home values, particularly the trend line, is of great interest to you because you and your husband would like to transition from your townhouse to a more-spacious single-family place.

Say you’re a 28-year-old single, male software developer in Reston. Schools aren’t on your iPhone screen. What especially interests you are where you can take your pet Lab, Pete, for a stimulating walk and obedience training, where you can find a year-round swimming pool with lap lanes, and a local bistro/pub that plays power metal and where you can meet geeky women. You are currently a renter, but keenly interested in trending condo values because you’re thinking of becoming a homeowner. Finally, you want to know how strong the job market is for geospatial developers in Reston compared, say, to Silicon Valley.

The flood of open data on the Web includes many “observations of daily life” about the livability indicators that would interest – and might materially affect – Married, Stay-at-Home Mom and Single, Male Software Developer.  But neither of these fictional but very demographically representative residents of Reston can go to any website to find useful readouts of “ODL” about their community – certainly not without laborious search – or to connect with other Reston residents who share their livability preferences.

It’s not as if there is a dearth of hyperlocal sites in Reston. Actually there are a number that claim to cover Reston – upwards of 10. But most are wedded to old definitions of news – the latest holdup at a local 7-Eleven, the big commuting-hour snarl on the Dulles Toll Road, the six-hour public hearing on the school budget. Sites like Foursquare push the envelope on what’s news, but with location-based information that, so far, doesn’t mesh with the short-listed preferences of our Married, Stay-at-Home Mom, Single, Male Software Developer or other demo-, geo- or psychographic profiles. Here’s the newest “tip” from Foursquare about one of Reston’s most popular gathering places – Fountain Square in Reston Town Center: “Don’t walk by the Chipotle fans by the rear entrance. They blow rancid air on you.” The date: Sept. 22, 2010!

The data explosion offers plentiful opportunities to develop new news. But to blend that data into a compelling content cocktail, hyperlocals have to be continually innovative, and that’s not happening (cf. Marshall Kirkpatrick’s lament).

Social networking is a big part of the new news, but it is nowhere near connecting to the user’s meaningful preferences. Married, Stay-at-Home Mom would love to meet and maybe even work with local parents who are also interested in individualized learning programs. Single, Male Software Developer would love to trade stories about work and career opportunities with other spatial software experts, and find other Lab owners to compare obedience-training info.

There are 198 million other Internet news consumers in the U.S., and they have their own personal preferences about  the livability of their community. How long will they have to wait to “fulfill [their] news wishes and dreams”?

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column on Street Fight. He is editorial director of Local America, which is developing a website to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories, including K-12 schools, health and wellness, housing, fun and vision.  The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from Local Experts and users of the site.

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  1. June 30, 2011

    Hi there. I am the editor of Reston Patch. Just wondering why you singled my community out. And there are NOT 10 hyperlocal sites covering Reston.

    1. TomGrubisich
      June 30, 2011

      Hi, Karen.  I used to live in Reston (and co-founded the pre-digital Connection).  Regarding the hyperlocal sites that (in my words) “claim to cover” Reston are Patch, The Connection, Fairfax Times, Outside.In (which I’m sure you’re familiar with, since Patch now owns it), Topix, AmericanTowns, the Examiner (via its Washington, DC, anchor site), Our Town and Yahoo! Local.  That’s nine sites, which  is “upwards of 10.”     They are not equal in editorial quality, where Patch, under your redoubtable editorship, rates high.  Most  of them were created to mine the El Dorado of rapidly growing local online ad revenue.   

      1. June 30, 2011

        Upwards of – “more than : in excess of” 

        1. Tom Grubisich
          June 30, 2011

          Silflay, thanks for correcting my wrong definition.  In enumerating the sites which claim to cover Reston I forgot to mention Foursquare and Gowalla, which make for 11.  I guess that’s “upwards of 10,” even if I didn’t know what “upwards” meant.

          1. July 1, 2011

            I’ve never been to Reston and I am no fan of Patch BUT I will speak in defense of the editor here – and all of us who do this for a living.

            For one – Topix, Yahoo, American Towns, etc. are NOT “hyperlocal news sites.” Nor are Everyblock or Outside.in, even in their pre-takeover/purchase/merger days. They are aggregators. 

            If you don’t have someone covering the news (hi!) you don’t have anything to aggregate. What you claim people are yearning for is aggregation, and God knows, there has been no shortage of them – they get the money, they get the investors. Those of us actually producing the aggregatable content get to go out and rustle up ad business to help us stay in business.

            It’s mixing mangos and papayas (hey, I’m tired of apples and oranges) to infer that a real “hyperlocal” (urg, please use community or neighborhood) news source should somehow find their way to being an aggregator. There are no shortages of services you can use to sort through the info out there to find what you’re looking for, provided it exists, from a service like mine, from local people on FB or Twitter or Meetup or whatever. If you want to be in a silo, that’s great, but I’m not going to build one for you, and our continually increasing traffic (new record this month!) shows a sizable portion of our community doesn’t seem to be expecting me to. They value what we ARE providing – information that they can’t find anywhere else.

          2. Tom Grubisich
            July 1, 2011

            Tracy, I totally agree that many sites that claim to cover communities are primarily aggregators.  Their “forums” are often a digital fig leaf to cover up that reality.  I don’t think people are “yearning” for aggregation at the community level.  What they want (and need), I believe, is news that helps them see how their community is succeeding and failing — never more than in these economically constrained times when expectations remain high but resources are dearer.  To me, the right news in these times will be a combination of data, journalism and the wisdom of the crowd.  It will include tools promoting civic networking that can help the community fix pinpointed problems.  Put it all together, and you’ve got what I call the “new news.”

  2. July 1, 2011

    Reston Patch has definitely become a go to news source for this 44yo Reston mom.

  3. July 1, 2011

    First of all, and shame on me, I tend to be skeptical of anyone who uses the word “fabulous” in a sentence unless the person happens to be Zsa Zsa Gabor. And although Kirkpatrick presents an interesting wish list, it also wouldn’t have been surprising if he had included a pony.

    It’s been evident for some time that the biggest problem facing the local news business has less to do with a lack of ideas for making local news better, and more to do with a transitional print business model that was delicate to begin with. The software guy with the Labrador, for example, would probably be happy to work on a next-generation local news platform, but he’s still going to need to buy dog food.

    So ask yourself this question: What kind of business model can be created which has revenue streams dependent on local information flow, yet are not dependent on paywalls and advertising?

    There’s an answer that really would be fabulous, dahling.

  4. July 6, 2011

    Great post about Hyperlocal news. We’re building a news aggregator with Hyper Local twist. It is picking up fast – 110k on Alexa for last 1 month. Would you like to check it out – http://www.loquila.com

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