What Independent Hyperlocals Need for the Long Haul

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Credit: Montclair, N.J., street, by Michael Greene

The surging growth of hyperlocal news—today there are more than 3,000 sites in operation and hundreds more in various stages of formation—is being driven by independents. The media disrupters are led by people who have the passion and gumption to develop and run their sites with financing from their own personal credit cards.

I’m thinking of entrepreneurs like Debbie Galant, who with $3,000 co-founded  Baristanet in the crowded media market of northern New Jersey in 2004, expanding it to seven communities. And Scott Brodbeck who, while he was completing a master’s program, started ARLNow in Arlington, Va., a suburb of Washington D.C. After founding it in January 2010, he took it to 100,000 uniques per month in a year and half. And Mike Shapiro, who, pledging to do community good after his infant son survived risky heart surgery, gave up a successful career as a litigator in Manhattan and launched The Alternative Press in his hometown of New Providence, N.J., growing it into a network covering 15 communities.

I could cite many worthy hyperlocal entrepreneurs, but I single out Galant, Brodbeck and Shapiro because they are the participants in a panel discussion on “surviving and thriving” in hyperlocal news at Street Fight’s Summit 2011 in New York City on Oct. 25-26.  How they did it will be instructive, and I’m sure inspirational, for other like-minded entrepreneurs. The decline of print newspapers created a well-documented gap in local news, but this new digital generation of entrepreneurs, many of whom have no professional journalistic experience, are not only closing the gap but reinventing local news in ways that make it richer, more nuanced and more community-connected. Local news is no longer just “information” to be consumed. It can be a pathway to getting things done.

Galant tells the story of the parking deck that was built in downtown Montclair, N.J., where Baristanet began.  The deck solved the downtown parking problem, but it had only one cashier’s booth for exiting cars. That  design goof produced long lines on weekends after the feature at the movie house let out. Galant is a professional writer—she had been the New Jersey columnist for the New York Times—but for this story she wielded not the power of the pen but of the video. “In a way that was sort of funny, caustic and really nailed it, I was able to do something, and did get action—another toll booth,” she said.

What Galant achieved shows the power of hyperlocal. But are independents equipped to “survive and thrive” over the long haul?  They are competing against major-media and legacy (newspaper and local TV) sites that are well financed. AOL has poured more than $200 million into its 863 Patch sites.  Metro newspapers—MetroMedia’s Denver Post, Tribune Co.’s Chicago Tribune and the New York Times Co.’s Boston Globe—have rolled out, between them, about 200 hyperlocal websites in their major markets. TV station owners, including Gannett, are developing hundreds of hyperlocal websites in Top 20 markets.

To compete, the independents have to organize. They are moving in that direction, but are they being as bold in solidifying their business as they often are in their editorial content and user engagement?  The new ad network created by 15 Chicago hyperlocals will target only local retailers—at a time when big-box retailers like Target are opening stores in the Windy City. The new trade group organized by 22 independent new publishers will focus on back-office issues like group health insurance and publishing liability as well as sales training. But do the independents need more than a trade association?

Major media and the legacies created their hyperlocals specifically to tap into the $100 billion to $150 billion local online media market that is now beginning to recognize the power and reach of community-based websites.  These big players won’t split hairs about potential advertisers.

I can’t wait to hear what Galant, Brodbeck and Shapiro have to say about tackling this challenge on Oct. 26 at Street Fight’s Summit 2011.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for 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.