Who Will Eat the Hyperlocal Donut?

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This week Bay Area News Group, the dominant publisher of small and mid-sized community papers in the region around San Francisco announced a huge consolidationand further layoffs. The strapped publisher cut 48 editorial jobs and announced it would condense 11 smaller dailies and weeklies under two larger mastheads. The Contra Costa Times, Valley Times, San Ramon Valley Times, Tri-Valley Herald, San Joaquin Herald, and East County Times will come under The Times masthead, and the Oakland Tribune, Alameda Times-Star, Daily Review, Argus and West County Times will be pushed under the East Bay Tribune masthead.The idea is that the larger papers would continue to carry local coverage for those towns and publishe the content in zipcode editions that go out to appropriate subscribers. This sounds great in theory, but we all know that this approach will likely result  in a further decline in local coverage. BANG is a fairly lean operation to begin with and I’m sure publisher Mac Tully is facing grim numbers like most other mid-size metro newspaper execs.

Even more worrying is what I call the Hyperlocal Donut Problem. In big, dense metro areas, dailies are struggling but will likely survive. Or, savvy hyperlocals will be able to capitalize on urban density to maintain coverage and still run viable businesses. In the rural areas, where newspapers are still the only game in town, local media continues to do pretty well and hold their own.

But gaps are starting to show in the zone between the cities and the sticks. In these donuts there are smaller cities and towns with their own local governments structures complete with school, police and fire departments, property taxes and the like. So there is plenty of action.

But there is not the population or economic density to support big advertisers or a real reportorial staff. These are exactly the sorts of areas that hyperlocal chains, like Patch.com, have tried to access and have, thus far, failed to make a profit at. For the towns in this area, the hollowing out of coverage is most critical. Several studies have shown that taking away media scrutiny leads to an increase of corruption and a lack of government accountability.

Fortunately, its so dang cheap to launch a hyperlocal news site ($3,000 cheap) that perhaps this giant donut -shaped hole actually presents a nifty opportunity for entrepreneurial journalists who may be able to pick up sufficient revenues left on the table from the dissolution of local publications yet still make a profit running at far lower overhead like West Seattle Blog.  In the interim, it looks like real news coverage in these donut zones will take a hit and the communities themselves could suffer the consequences.

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


Street Fight Daily: 08.29.11

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