Hyperlocal Scoreboard: Two Close Watchers Total It Up

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The Poynter Institute’s Mallary Jean Tenore and Rick Edmonds are must-reads in the digital media world.  Their pieces on hyperlocal, while not numerous, have been extensively linked, tweeted and commented on. (Here and here for Tenore and here and here for Edmonds.)  Tenore came of age in the digital era, while Edmonds entered his first newsroom when the IBM Selectric typewriter was still the standard.  I sat them down for a chat about hyperlocal, targeting moms, what’s needed most and where the industry will be in five years. 

Mallary, you’ve examined the demise of two ambitious hyperlocals TBD (in its original, community-centric form) and InJersey.  Do you anticipate participating in more hyperlocal inquests?
I don’t want to see hyperlocals fold, but I think we’ll see more of this as more people begin experimenting with them. Readers seem especially interested in learning from the hyperlocals that haven’t done what they set out to do. They’re also interested in how to generate advertising revenue for hyperlocals, how to distinguish them from their competitors (mainstream news sites, or even other hyperlocal sites) and how to increase readers’ interest in them.

Rick, you’ve written about hyperlocal as a kind of digital Ambien, unless someone wants to build a high-rise office building next to your back yard.  Is hyperlocal capable of producing a “next best thing,” and, if so, what might that be?
Actually, I am a reader of hyperlocal about my neighborhood.  What I said in that piece some months back is that twice a week in the St. Pete Times zoned edition and monthly in two print newsletters is frequently enough for me.  I don’t think that there is a lot of need-to-know-right-now breaking news in my neighborhood–or most neighborhoods. Since that piece, Patch has started in my neighborhood.  A look now and then is plenty for me.  I have met the editor and know she is competent in digital hyperlocal, but the Patch formula seems thin and low voltage.  The best I have seen is Every Block’s take on the interesting West Philadelphia neighborhood where I lived 30 years ago.

What would you add to the “Whither hyperlocal?” debate.  Rick, from a business point of view?
I don’t see a viable business model yet.  Plus, as noted above, sites with compelling content for most of the target audience seem the exception rather than the rule.  Maybe we are still in an experimental phase. Knowledgeable analysts like Gordon Borrell are forecasting a surge in local digital advertising over the next several years.  To date, I don’t see the typical local merchant swinging hard to digital marketing, and now they have Groupon and Groupon clones to get new customers into the store.  But never say never.

Mallary, with your focus on best practices?
There are a lot of questions about advertising that hyperlocals need to work through. As The Batavian‘s Howard Owens has said, there’s plenty of talk about content strategies at hyperlocals. But there’s far less talk about hyperlocal advertising strategies, and I think that needs to change. Hyperlocals need dedicated sales staffers who understand the value of hyperlocals to local advertisers. Page views shouldn’t matter as much as the likelihood that the ads will reach a lot of local visitors. And that raises a whole set of other challenges: How do you build an audience that doesn’t just visit your site every now and then, but that keeps coming back?

AOL’s Patch and some other networked hyperlocals, like MainStreetConnect, are aiming especially at the female user, accenting “lifestyle” coverage over school-board budget hearings.  Will this become the prevailing template for content?  Mallary?
No doubt, some hyperlocals are focusing more on lifestyle content. And I think that works to a certain extent, especially if a site determines that it wants its target audience to be women. But the hyperlocals I respect the most have tried to reach a broad audience within a small community. They’ve made local news a central part of their mission. West Seattle Blog, The Batavian and BaristaNet are prime examples. They’re aggressively covering local news that matters to their communities.

The emphasis on lifestyle content does seem the formula of Patch, and perhaps that is part of what bores me: I’m not looking for a great pedicure. I suppose sites targeting moms or working moms are an example of gender-specific that works. There is a natural range of content, some of it local and some of it generated for free by discussions. And moms control a range of purchases, including camps and after-school programs.  So there is an ad base.

The National League of Cities says hyperlocal journalism has to go beyond achieving user civility, even engagement, and help get citizens involved in community-level problem solving, especially as we enter an era of fewer financial resources. Rick, is this a prescription for a higher dosage of Ambien?
No, I’ll buy into that. But journalistic chops help anyone trying to make sense of such topics and then present the material clearly.

Mallary, how do you suppose the hyperlocal editors and publishers who are your sources would react?
Many of the journalists I’ve talked to see the value in engaging with citizens and providing them with the news they need to better understand their communities. I think the extent to which hyperlocals can give readers an opportunity to have a voice in the issues that affect them is important. Whether hyperlocals are well-positioned to help citizens get involved in problem solving depends on whether the people running them see this as a valuable/achievable undertaking.

Who are the innovators in hyperlocal? Mallary?
West Seattle Blog, The Batavian and BaristaNet have all done well and are worth watching. Tracy Record and Howard Owens are smart thinkers, and it’s clear they’re dedicated to their sites and the communities they cover. The Patch sites I’ve seen have not been terribly innovative, but it’s worth watching them to see whether they’re having an impact on local communities and whether the model is ultimately sustainable.

I admire some of the usual suspects – West Seattle Blog, Dallas South, the Ann Arbor Chronicle and The Batavian.  But I worry that if it takes particularly talented and committed people to scratch out an income for one family, such successes may not be scalable.

Neither of you mentioned someone or a site  that’s part of a major-media initiative.  All your choices are independent one-off’s.  How significant is that?  Mallary?
I think we learned from InJersey that hyperlocals run by news organizations don’t work unless they have a dedicated team of staffers who can solely focus on the site. Journalists can’t be expected to do their full-time job and also immerse themselves in a hyperlocal, especially if the site has a limited number of staffers.

The St. Pete Times, Boston Globe and Seattle Times, all major media, are rebuilding their neighborhood coverage.  There’s also EveryBlock. The independents – or at least a well-rooted local staff – can provide a passion about the place that will make a hyperlocal site worth reading.

Five years from now, will there be a proven journalistic/business model for hyperlocal, and what might it be?  Rick?
Well this is a classic case, to invoke the mother of all business cliché’s of trying “to skate where the puck will be.”  I see Patch and much smaller groups of sites or those operating independently all hoping they will be well-established about the time a mass of local merchants (and perhaps the stores of national chains) have a road-to-Damascus conversion to digital hyperlocal. If it takes as long as five years, though, many of the current players will have gone the way of  Backfence, Loudon Extra, TBD and InJersey.  Maybe, like Groupon or Facebook five years ago, the winning solution has not been invented yet but will be.

I think it’s too soon to say, but there are lessons to be learned from the sites that have failed to do what they set out to accomplish. Ultimately, journalists running these sites need to be willing to experiment with different approaches, and develop revenue and content strategies. The key is to evaluate and modify these strategies along the way to figure out what does and doesn’t work.

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Tom Grubisich authors The New News column, which appears Thursdays on Street Fight. He is editorial director of Local America, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. 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.