Why Hyperlocal News Is Better Than Ever

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Hyperlocal news is on the threshold of a period of impressive achievement. I’m not talking about revisiting the wishful thinking of the previous decade, when we were regaled with dithyrambics about “grassroots” and “citizen” journalism. I am talking about what is actually happening—site by site, community by community, day by day. Add everything up, and you have a steadily growing number of sites that are innovating to find and produce quality news covering a myriad of topics.  This added-value news is reaching and engaging more people, thanks principally to the giant leaps by social media. The best hyperlocals are becoming the X factor in the networked civic renaissance that communities need to emerge stronger from their trying economic times.

Many of the best hyperlocal were created by social-minded entrepreneurs — WestSeattleBlog, Sacramento Press, WestportNow, The Batavian, The Alternative Press, TheDavidsonNews, Baristanet, Brownstoner, ARLNow, SeeClickFix. But big media is also making progress figuring out how to generate quality news in the hyperlocal space: Tribune Co.’s TribLocal, GateHouseMedia’s Wicked Local, Boston Globe’s YourTown, LJ World’s WellCommons, MainStreetConnect and — yes — even AOL’s Patch.

The levels of achievement aren’t all even. What’s significant, though, is that the achievers are moving, at different rates of speed and ambition, in the same direction: generating news that seeks to strengthen community connections.

It’s too soon to say that more than a few sites—if any at all—have a business model that works (i.e. they make money). Most of the sites depend on modest numbers of “core” users who are voracious news consumers rather than the bigger number of browsers and searchers who tend not to be as engaged.  The verdict is still out whether enough advertisers will decide to go the small-is-good route in buying space.

How do hyperlocals generate “quality” news content? Many sites are relying increasingly on full-time reporters. To supplement what small staffs are able to do, some sites are adding paid freelancers or nonpaid volunteers. In both cases, outside contributions are getting editorial oversight to ensure more consistency.  This is still a touch-and-go process at some sites.

More and more, hyperlocal editors are talking about using journalistic curation—a discriminating kind of aggregation—to close the quality gap.

From Carll Tucker, founder of MainStreetConnect, where curation supplements full-time reporters in each community: “There are all sorts of ways in which our neighbors can be encouraged to contribute to their local conversation: comments, opinion pieces, calendar entries, scores, uploaded pix, interesting stories, reactions to major news events, etc. Getting neighbors into the habit of contributing is the tricky part. Folks are only beginning to sense that their co-ownership of their community news site is real and that we really want to include their voice. It takes time and work.”

From Ben Ilfeld, founder of the Sacramento Press, talking about “push” curation, which means not only finding a news source but getting that source to actually say something on topic: “Initially I thought of all the reasons ‘push’ wouldn’t work. Public figures like to be vague and often do not participate. Non-public community experts often are told not to say anything about controversial issues by their bosses or PIOs.  There are hurdles and they are non-trivial, but ‘push’ curation is a major focus of ours at The Sacramento Press. The first ‘push’ curation is the simple act of involving oneself in the comment section of your articles, finding stories, building sources and answering questions from your community. The post is simply a “Request for Participation” from you to your community. The next step is to activate public and non-public experts to participate with your community.”

From Steve Brodbeck, founder of ARLNow in the close-in Washington, D.C., suburb of Arlington, Va.: “Curation is a small but important part of our daily coverage. We run a daily “Morning Notes” feature (see: http://www.arlnow.com/2011/08/19/morning-notes-296) that basically is a hand picking of stories from the past 24 hours. The idea is to link to important, relevant stories covered by local news sources, as well as to national news articles that have an interesting local angle. We provide a short, 1-3 sentence executive summary and then link to the original article. As for ‘push’ curation, we will occasionally publish articles with the intention of the resulting comments filling in the gaps. For instance, we’ll post a brief article about a strong storm that just passed through the area and ask readers to describe the storm damage in their neighborhood.  It’s a fantastic way to really broaden coverage without the need to have a half dozen reporters driving in circles around the county.”

A big challenge is getting public officials to join issue debates—to do more than deliver “sound-bite” messages. Says Howard Owens, founder of The Batavian in Upstate New York: “We have a pretty active comment community, though not too many officials participate. Most of them are uncomfortable with anything other than being a source in a story.”

Public officials are the big missing element of issue coverage. The next “The New News” will talk about how to get them to do more than bite off sounds.