Why Hyperlocal News Is Better Than Ever

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.




  1. August 26, 2011

    Better than ever maybe but still not able to pay for its work.

    1. August 26, 2011

      In some cases, true.  But potentially sustainable models are being built, cog by byte.

  2. August 27, 2011

    There are some change-points which are intransigent in other words we have to wait for the dinosaur to disappear before we see fruits of new thinking and new possibilities.  There are some change-points which are dormant, where we have to go back to the past in order to reawaken a lost spirit or way.  Then there are some change-points which are vibrant.

    The underlying connection to these change-points is the birth of an intelligent village.  We do reside among intelligence in village or local existence, but there is always the connection back to work as the meaning of existence, rather than reverence for the home being the meaning of existence.  When we shift our attitude from “what do you do for a living?” to “do you have a life?”  – then IMHO the renaissance of local really begins.

    So long as we are tied to old conceptions of what local is tethered to, it won’t fundamentally alter the nature and purpose of local journalism.  Yet we are witness to great changes which speak to the transformation of news as consumption towards news as nutrition.  If life has taught me anything, it is that everything begins from the home.  The intelligent village is one part healthier education, one part healthier media and one part healthier life.  

    Renaissance isn’t the light switch of instant transformation, but what I read here is evidence that there is a renaissance in thinking and it will change culture as and when.   Life might be fundamentally different to the value propositions we live with today in 50 years, or it might be a fond reflection to the good old days – as if we are the one’s that were living in the “good old days”.   

    The heartbeat of modern life is global, but it is the heart which is local.  When I read all the green links in the above article, I am of the persuasion that local is more than just media – it is a long and winding pathway to the “intelligent village” but that all those green links prove to me, that this slow movement of renaissance has begun.

    “viktor ovurmind” @thoughtspaces:twitter

  3. Jstevens
    August 30, 2011

    Interesting post, Tom. Looking forward to the next installment. One of the keys to engagement seems to be to make sure the members of the community regard the site as their own, rather than belonging to a news organization. And to claim ownership, they have to be given the keys to the place…i.e., to post to the site as if engaging in conversation on an equal footing with everyone else.

  4. August 31, 2011

    Agreed – this is a great time for hyperlocal.

  5. September 7, 2011

    I have another spin on the hyper-local news scene. It’s hyper-local everywhere – http://www.localByUs.com

    Each of the above sites you mention restricts to one particular location. I have a single site that gives each user posts from their area, by people in their area. Sorta like a location-based twitter. Currently, bloggers are using it to promote their local blogs.

    Gradually, I hope to get more user involvement, both people in government and people like me just interested in what’s going on in the community. For greater user involvement, I am working on a smart-phone app for LocalByUs. If I can make it easier for people to get involved, perhaps they will when they can.

    I agree it is tough to get local government to get involved. I have been trying to get the local neighborhood association to contribute. They usually have community information they want to disseminate. So, it will be a good fit gradually.

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