Whatever happened to YourHub?
Six years ago it was major media’s first big foray into hyperlocal. Created by the Rocky Mountain News, the flagship of the E.W. Scripps newspaper chain, YourHub called itself the “electronic town square” of Denver and 40 suburbs sprinkled across the Front Range. A couple of months after its launch, it claimed 50,000 unique visitors. By the next year, it had signed up newspaper franchisees from coast to coast.
To its advocates, YourHub was the answer to newspapers desperately looking to replace shrinking print revenues with digital gold. But digital gold, like the real stuff, is not easy to find, even for big newspaper companies that think they’ve seen the future. What happened in Denver is a sobering case study about metro newspapers and what happens when they plunge into hyperlocal.
In 2008, three years after YourHub’s launch, spokes started flying off the wheel. The Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee canceled its franchise because it was unhappy with the steady stream of press releases that YourHub pumped out, thanks to a lax registration system that permitted less-than-transparent signups. The next year the whole wheel went flying loose. Scripps shut the Rocky two months short of its 150th birthday. YourHub’s remaining franchise papers pulled out. What was left—YourHub in metro Denver—became the foster child of MediaNews Group’s Denver Post, the surviving partner of the two dailies’ Denver Newspaper Agency, which owned the hyperlocal operation.
It was an awkward embrace. YourHub’s clunky content management software couldn’t be integrated into the Post’s system. Worse, YourHub’s anything-goes citizen journalism clashed with the Post’s own closely administered and moderated Neighbors community forum.
Fast forward to mid-2011. YourHub is fully integrated into the Post’s new multi-platform content management system. Citizen journalism is balanced with more staff-produced content—a model that the Chicago Tribune’s TribLocal successfully adopted to replace fluff like parent-supplied reports on kiddie birthday parties. But while the Post has fixed some of YourHub’s worst flaws, it hasn’t created anything like well-connected electronic town squares throughout metro Denver.
The surviving citizen journalism can be weak. Here’s the lead paragraph from a story in the Arvarda YourHub on Aug. 2 (and was still being featured on the neighborhood homepage as of Aug. 18):
“Population growth impacts two important systems in the Denver Metro Area—wastewater and transportation. The 25 July 2011 City Council Meeting had presentations on both of these matters that were both informative and interesting, one on plans for the Ralston Road Corridor and the other showing developments in the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District.”
Help is on the way, says YourHub Managing Editor Eric Lubbers. “The community managers we are hiring for each of our regions will be holding weekly sessions in the communities for anyone to drop by and talk about stories and learn about the journalism process,” he says. “Those community managers will also be holding regular training sessions at libraries/schools, etc.”
Asked about YourHub’s reputation for being a catch basin for press releases masquerading as news stories, Lubbers said of the new system: “All content goes through my staff before it is available to the general public and they will contact users to explicitly identify themselves and their relationship to the stories they are posting.” But press releases and “articles” where home-based business people promote their services and products still appear, like this recent one in the Golden YourHub making questionable health claims: “Easing Menopause With Essential Oils.”
Meanwhile, YourHub has completely ignored perhaps the biggest current story in metro Denver—the 47% increase in the growth of Hispanic youth under 18 between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. In the once predominantly white suburbs—where YourHub’s flag is planted most firmly—the growth of Hispanic youth has been especially dramatic: 62% in Douglas County, 60% in Jefferson County, 73% in Arapahoe County. The implications for the metro region are potentially enormous. Hispanics, overall, are lagging in academic achievement in metro Denver schools and dropping out at high rates. Schools aren’t doing enough fast enough to produce better outcomes, critics say. The achievement gap between Hispanic and white students regionally is one of the widest in the U.S. If these trends continue, metro Denver would be hard-pressed to meet its growing need for educated workers. The losers would not only be Hispanics but the whole region.
But to produce stories that bring to life trends like this one, YourHub needs passion, and that doesn’t appear to be part of YourHub’s strategy to own the space occupied by the network’s reconfigured 11 hubs and 110 neighborhoods. Maybe that’s why YourHub has only 80,556 unique visitors monthly, according to its media kit (56,291 in June 2011, according to Compete with a big plunge to 18,671 in July). Even if YourHub’s larger number is accurate, that’s not even 2% of the 5,322,459 UV’s that the Post overall website attracts.
So far, YourHub has been able to operate in a near-vacuum of serious competition. But it can’t be too long before AOL’s Patch—already operating in many similar affluent suburban markets in the East, Middle West and West Coast—is growing sites in metro Denver.
YourHub does have one advantage no competitor can match—zoned inserts that go into every Thursday copy of the Post and are also available free in racks. This “dead-tree” product grosses about $3.5 million annually–90% of YourHub’s total revenues. As the Post’s print circulation continues to decline, that revenue share will shrink, but the Post is hoping that the new YourHub website has enough “secret sauce” to gain traction and make up any difference, and then some.
There’s this big question, though: Is the “new” YourHub.com new enough to make that happen?
Tom Grubisich authors The New News column, which appears Thursdays on Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, 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.
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