As NYC Metros Cut Back, Hyperlocals Fill the News Hole

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Lights have been going out in newsrooms of New York City’s metro newspapers for more than a decade. The latest in a long series of staff downsizings at the four surviving metros has seen the New York Daily News eliminate positions that are at the heart of local news: deputy police bureau chief, political reporter, federal courts reporter, City Hall reporter, staff photographer. But while traditional newsrooms darken, new hyperlocal sites in neighborhoods throughout the city are eagerly shining light on the city’s eight million stories.

For DNAinfo, which covers all Manhattan’s major neighborhoods and is expanding to the other boroughs, one of those 8 million stories – from the Upper East Side – is “Dust and Odors From 2nd Ave. Subway Project Worry Residents.” For Sheepshead Bites in Brooklyn, it is “Citibank to Replace Berta’s in Brighton Beach.” For the Sunnyside Post in Queens, it is “City Issues Warning about Illegal Apts. 2 years after [Fatal] Woodside Fire.”

And so it goes, by the day and hour, at scores of hyperlocals that have popped up in the city’s five boroughs. While most of the stories are intensely local, some specialty sites shine their light on the big picture. City Limits asks “Who Are the Victims of the Ticket-Fixing Scandal?”  New York Civic waves a warning flag: “Asphalt Green Set to Become Port Garbage Under City Plan.” Noticing New York does more than notice: “Big Politically-Connected Real Estate Projects: Ignoring The Public Majority With Futile ‘Participatory Democracy’ Hearing Process .”

Click here to see a selected directory of hyperlocal publications in New York City.

On the neighborhood level, hyperlocal has done something that hasn’t existed journalistically in the city.  It has provided street-level reporting that no one was doing.  — Mary Ann Giordano, New York Times

Even the beleaguered metros now see part of their future through a hyperlocal lens. The New York Times, in partnership with the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and NYU, has launched two community sites under the label “The Local” — in Fort Greene-Clinton Hill in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side in Manhattan.

Mary Ann Giordano, a Times deputy editor who helped found The Local — which grew out of an earlier unsuccessful Times hyperlocal experiment in suburban New Jersey — says: “On the neighborhood level, hyperlocal has done something that hasn’t existed journalistically in the city.  It has provided street-level reporting that no one was doing.  Why is the grocery store on my block closing? Why can’t I park on the opposite side of the street this week?  One of the shocking things we discovered is how much news there is on the local level.”

To stay on top of the flood of news, and hold down costs, The Local uses CUNY and NYU journalism students to provide most of its editorial content. Augmenting student-produced stories are articles and commentary by citizens of the neighborhoods served by The Local, including activists who have been involved with perennial issues, like controversial redevelopment plans.  A Times editor oversees the flow of content to help make sure that fact is separated from opinion.  “You have to do the same kind of due diligence with contributors as you do with sources,” says Giordano. “You tell where the information comes from, and if the author has skin in the game.”

There is enough news generated on the Lower East Side to keep several hyperlocals busy.  The Lo-Down was founded two and a half years ago by a 20-year veteran of broadcast news, Ed Litvak, and his wife, Traven Rice, a TV news producer and film maker.  The Lo-Down monitors the local community board, where hot development proposals get aired and sometimes modified before they proceed up the governmental decision ladder.  But the site also is alert to the news value of Lady Gaga’s planned book launch at the New Museum on the Bowery.

Litvak and Rice started the Lo-Down in the spring of 2009 with $2,000 in personal funds.  In year two, after more personal investment that became a “major drain” and the site began soliciting advertising,  it was breaking even, Litvak said. The next move, still in the conceptual stage, is creating “a physical presence in a conspicuous spot” where Lo-Down could develop new revenue streams, possibly through selling food and drink.  “We’re still pretty far from that happening,” he said.

Sheepshead Bites is one of the many hyperlocals that have taken root in Brooklyn, the city’s largest, and arguably feistiest, borough.  The site was founded in 2008 by lifelong Sheepshead Bay resident Ned Berke, who, at 28, is already a veteran editor and publisher.  It publishes hard-hittng stories like “Brighton Building Collapse: Architects Had History of Breaking Building Regulations,” but also turns over the lead space on its home page to an ad for a dance performance formatted like a news story, but clearly labeled “sponsored.”

Berke says the rapid growth of hyperlocals in Brooklyn and throughout most of the rest of the city means “not a lot is being missed in local news, but it’s spread among so many outlets.”  Though there may be fewer news gaps, there are still cracks, he says, especially in investigative news.  Berke says Sheepshead Bites, which runs about 15 local ads per month, is producing a “modest profit.”  A year and a half ago, he started a second hyperlocal, Bensonhurst Bean, serving the neighboring South Brooklyn community.

Looking at the future of hyperlocals, Berke says, “In the history of newspapers, we saw cannibalization, amalgamation, papers being bought out.  Maybe it’ll be the same with us.”

Click here to see a selected directory of hyperlocal publications in New York City.

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.