Big Picture Stories Make Hyperlocals More Valuable

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“How’m I doin’?” was Ed Koch’s incessant greeting to New Yorkers of all stations during his three terms as mayor in the late 1970s and 1980s. It wasn’t just a politician’s gambit, like the handshake or autograph signing. Koch believed in putting government performance to the test — not just at election time, but every day.

Koch’s question echoed in my head as I was putting together Street Fight’s directory of hyperlocal publications in New York City last week. The 46 sites I listed were, I concluded, more than making up for the news gaps created by the steady shrinking of the editorial staffs of the city’s beleaguered dailies. Browsing through the sites I was continually struck by how much news the hyperlocals — many of them with staffs that could fit in the broom closets of any of the metro papers — found or generated. But what I didn’t find very often were stories echoing Koch’s question, which, given the amount of data available to measure performance, should be resonating louder and more insistently than ever in this deep, stubborn recession.

When the U.S. Census Bureau announced earlier this month that poverty was more extensive in the U.S. under new measuring criteria, I assumed NYC hyperlocals would be all over that story from a community angle. After all, historical poverty rates in the city are about 50% higher than in the U.S., with 248 census tracts in “extreme poverty.” How do the Census Bureau’s revised figures affect the city? Are more neighborhoods in extreme poverty, and, if so, where are they? This is the perfect story for a heat map that would keep users clicking away. Poverty information is easily accessible on the city planning department’s site, but, as far as I could see, none of the city’s hyperlocals attempted to localize the story. Nor did they try to examine economic conditions in their communities to test the contrarian report in the NY Times  that concluded the Census Bureau findings were overstated.

The Bronx Ink, which covers the poorest borough in the city, is operated by students of the redoubtable Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.  Despite the journalistic talent it can marshal, the Bronx Ink not only passed on the poverty story, but fumbled another, earlier story just as important – the city’s decision to close the Bronx Academy High School, a six-year experiment to help some of the city’s worst-performing students.  The Ink covered the decision to close the academy, but its story leaves big, unanswered questions, one being why does a school labeled as “persistently failing,” gets official city ratings from students, parents and teachers on academic expectations and other key performance criteria that are significantly and consistently higher than those at other under-achieving schools in the city. (This information can be accessed with three easy computer keyboard clicks.)

Other major community indicators, like health and wellness and foreclosures are covered just as spottily by NYC hyperlocals, even though data to develop stories showing progress or decline is becoming easier to find.

The issue is not journalistic do-goodism.  Big-picture community stories make hyperlocals more valuable sources of news, which, in turn, generates not only more traffic, but more engaged traffic. Engaged users stay on a site longer — a habit that appeals to advertisers.

The big picture is the big challenge for hyperlocals everywhere.  At one- and two-person operations — which most sites are — the temptation is powerful to focus on granular, topical stories — holiday toy collections, volunteer community cleanups, charity festivals.  These stories are an essential part of the DNA of hyperlocals — most of them won’t get attention anywhere else.  But if they want to be valuable, hyperlocals have to take enough time to sketch out their community’s big picture, so they can show “how it’s doin’.”

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.