Hyperlocal Is Only as Good as Its Talent

Ted Mann made a lot of smart points in his recent post on the lessons he learned from two years running inJersey, a network of 17 hyper-local blogs across the Garden State. Many are givens if you want any chance of success: Build cheap websites on WordPress and BuddyPress? Natch. Live in the town you cover? Duh! Maps are not really useful? Not surprising — people look at them but don’t click on them (unless they’re checking their neighbors’ property values). But in general, Ted offers up an excellent primer for hyper-local startups.

That said, there was one big, simple and very important takeaway from his column: Your hyperlocal effort is only as good as your editors or writers. In a small town, having a single, passionate voice who is prolific and visible in the community can make the difference between flourishing and folding.

I am referring, of course, to Colleen Curry, who come from seemingly nowhere and became the star attraction at the top-performing Freehold site (as well as a reporter at the Asbury Park Press). Colleen was tenacious, versatile and constantly out and about. She covered the courts and school boards, did regular beat and feature writing, and hung out a whimsical shingle in the local coffee shop: a cardboard sign proclaiming “The Journalist is In.”

Her work stands in breathtaking contrast to that being done by big-city dailies these days. Wave after wave of cuts has so battered the big guys that reporters have told me they don’t leave the building unless they have to because of the constant deadline grind. (Gannett, to its credit, has been aggressive about giving reporters home or mobile offices, allowing them to work where they live and file from the field. I’m sure this also saves money on reduced office space).

So what kind of a difference can a Colleen make in a small town? Freehold posted  65,000 pageviews and 47,000 unique users in a single month and was a top performer in the inJersey network. That’s not much for a big city for for a town of just north of 11,000 souls, the number is quite impressive.  That penetration and readership easily rivals the impressions of a small-town daily. Not to say that a hyper-local site would be as profitable as a small-town daily could have been in print’s heyday. But this is clear evidence that the site became a place people visited regularly enough that it starts to matter.

I have no idea whether the economics of inJersey could support over the talent like Colleen over the long run.  That she ended up going on to become USA Today’s New Jersey correspondent speaks volumes about where the real money in the media business still lies. But it’s possible that the way to support someone like Colleen is in a throwback model to the days when a husband and wife ran the local newspaper and together they did everything. They made a nice living sometimes. More about why I think that model, and not the model of big chains, may be more viable in the near-term in my next column on this topic.

Alex Salkever’s Personal Fight column appears every Friday on Street Fight.

  1. Dave
    July 8, 2011

    “Freehold posted  65,000 pageviews and 47,000 unique users in a single month and was a top performer in the inJersey network.”

    How does 1.7 pageviews/month per unique visitor equal success? I’ve seen this metric with a lot of the recently-leaked Patch data, too: very, very low pageviews/monthly user. Can anyone explain this phenomenon to me? 

    1. July 8, 2011

      I think it important to remember here, too, that the hyper-local blog phenomenon is still quite new. Core newspapers generally serve a bigger audience that has become acclimated to the brand. So InJersey was really pushing a rock up a hill and it did an admirable job on a shoestring in a short period of time. Also, I may be wrong but using WP in the way that Ted describes could mean low PVs because so much information is on the home page. Lastly, core newspapers do increasingly employ PV tricks like slideshows to goose PVs. So it’s a bit of a tricky metric. When you are a shoestring operation, resource intensive features such as slideshows are harder to pull of. 

      1. TR
        July 9, 2011

        And they’re lame. Photos should be run inline, scrollable, with contextual information between them. They tell a story that way, rather than just clickety-clickety-click. But I digress. Hadn’t heard about this analysis of pageviews to unique. We run blog format, with most stories fully told on the main page – last month 961,000 pageviews and 107,000 uniques – and no “pageview goosing” tricks whatsoever. – Tracy in W. Seattle

        1. July 11, 2011

          Tracy, in fact, you are a poster child for exactly what I am going to be driving at in the next column. West Seattle is precisely what I mean in saying that the future of hyper-local news might actually be a return to the era of Mom-and-Pop local news operations that are lean, mean, always on the job.

  2. July 8, 2011

    Thank you, Alex. I’m so thrilled to see others giving Colleen the credit she so richly deserves. She busted her butt for 2 years covering Freehold, and shined a light on the issues in the community that almost no one else was doing. When there was a dangerous intersection in the town, reported by a user of the Freehold InJersey site on SeeClickFix, she followed up on the issue with a series of posts and her advocacy journalism effectively helped convince the town to get the traffic signal fixed. We went into the InJersey project half-expecting the sites would be populated with fluff and profiles of local residents (and yes, we had some of this), but Colleen made the whole effort sing by covering fires, car crashes, stabbings, immigrant issues, and more. Basically, the kind of hard-hitting, breaking news everyone looks to media outlets to provide. I’m just sad that we couldn’t turn her stellar journalism into a viable business model.

    Dave, you’re right, our pageview-to-unique ratio was low (we get more like 10 pv/unique on the core newspaper sites). Though I hardly think this flaw was our undoing. Sure, we could have goosed pageviews with more photo galleries or directory listings or any of the other tactics routinely employed on other sites, but the fact remains: We had a large audience — at least we did on town sites like Freehold InJersey. We just couldn’t sell enough advertising, or create enough other revenue streams, to support the editorial work with full-time staffers. 

    1. Dave
      July 8, 2011

      Ted — Not being critical about the pageviews. Just trying to understand better. I’m in the hyperlocal sector myself and understand the struggles. You’re to be commended for your effort. I’m just baffled by the difference between that 10:1 ratio and the 1:1 ratio, as I have seen it elsewhere. I also agree wholeheartedly about the talent being the driving force. 

      1. July 8, 2011

        I think it partly has to do with the blog format. While our newspaper websites tease stories off their homepages, we initially gave the full posts on the main blog index page. We later moved to showing only excerpts, which forced users to click through for the article, and started using page-based photo galleries (1 pv per photo). I’ve written and edited other (non-hyperlocal) blogs and seen a similarly low ratio.

        Still, as I’ve said repeatedly, it’s misleading to judge a hyperlocal on pageviews. It’s one factor of engagement, sure, but FB likes and retweets are also important. Above all, the size of the audience (read: uniques) is what matters, and we know we were reaching a huge chunk of the residents of Freehold and Woodbridge and the like with InJersey. 

        Yes, I would have liked if they clicked 10 stories deep onto the site each visit. But even more so, we wanted to get them to contribute their own posts, stories, gossip, and photos. On that count, we were never as successful as we set out to be. 
        Maybe the goal of 50% of the posts coming from the community was over-ambitious, but I still think that somebody somewhere is going to figure out how to achieve that. 

        Colleen deserves a lot of credit for doing everything humanly possible to move the needle in Freehold. Things like the coffee shop bureau took some courage to pull off.

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