J-Students Go Local: Inside NYU’s East Village Hyperlocal Site

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In August, Daniel Maurer left New York magazine’s food blog Grub Street to take an editorship at The Local: East Village, a joint project between NYU and The New York Times. The university’s j-school funds the effort, while the Gray Lady provides some editorial guidance. (Last month, Street Fight spoke with Mary Ann Giorando, the Times editor in charge of the paper’s side.)

As the site’s editor, Maurer teaches his students about community reporting in the streets around their campus — letting them wet their feet online, and sometimes get picked up by the Times. The Local is fully funded, but part of Maurer’s mission is also to remake the site into a viable business by bulking up restaurant coverage and other service features, setting the groundwork for ad sales, and potentially planning a neighborhood events series. The longtime East Village resident chatted with Street Fight recently about the secrets of hyperlocal service, why the site cannot sell ads (yet), and the importance of getting a story in the Times.

What are your main duties at the Local?
My duties are divided between editing the blog and being a teacher of the hyperlocal class. Next semester, it’s going to be nine students. They’ll contribute to the site, stay on top of the news, and also work on larger feature stories. The class is meant to run as a newsroom as much as possible and replicate a professional news environment. A lot of how they’re learning is via the editing of their stories and the entire pitching process. I’m telling them what I want or don’t want, or what I think is news and what I think is timely.

The other part of my job is to seek community contributors. We want the blog to be balanced between the students and the community contributors, who have been in the neighborhood a lot longer and have a deep-rooted understanding and a different perspective.

How have you changed the Local since you arrived?
I’ve tried to get the post-count up so it’s a site where people keep coming back throughout the day and see new material there. I’m just trying to make it more timely and relevant.

I think there’s a perception of student journalism that it’s often very wide-eyed and naïve. You have students coming to the neighborhood and seeing a cool shop and saying: “I’ve got to interview the owner of that shop.” Meanwhile, it’s a shop that’s been profiled a thousand times and everyone is already very much familiar with it. There is no reason for us to reinvent the wheel by profiling it for the fifty-thousandth time.

My objective is to make the site something that the residents of the neighborhood can come to and find out something that they don’t already know. In addition to that, we have to acknowledge that people who don’t live in the East Village are really interested in coming here for the bars, for the restaurants, for the stores. We also want to make the site a service to people so they can learn more about what’s available in the neighborhood. I think I have amped up the service component a little bit. There’s been more restaurant coverage. We want to make sure we’re on top of every restaurant and giving nice slide shows about the restaurants. That’s part of my background with Grub Street, and it’s a great entry point for people who wouldn’t be reading the site otherwise.

I do try to make sure that the students don’t get tied down to the service end of it. That’s just the sugar-coating on the blog. I want the students to focus on hard news stories about things that really matter.

How much of it is about creating a sustainable editorial as well as a business model?
For the past semester, it’s been mostly editorially focused, just because we want to get the content on the blog to be really strong. The feeling is that we need to get to that level before we can try to sell it. Right now, the ad space on the site is controlled by the Times, and obviously, they’re going for bigger buys than are ideal for us. We’re talking to them about taking some of the space in the C column and trying to sell to local businesses.

Can you share any traffic metrics?
The Times doesn’t share that stuff. Our traffic has doubled since the summer and is steadily climbing. I think that’s just a result of getting more posts up that are timelier and have more urgency. We’ve also had a lot more solid hard news stories, which do tend to get bigger traffic. We’ve been making much more of an effort to reach out to other blogs and get posts picked up, like City Room, for instance.

What’s been your experience with the Times editors?
They’re great. Obviously, you kind of have to pick and choose what you bring to them, but they took me into their newsroom and I spent a few days there. I was really excited and it set the tone. They said they wanted us to knock on the door and come to them with great stories. They’re hoping that the Locals bring great stories to them.

Stephen Rex Brown, our on-staff reporter, is actually working on a story for the paper as we speak. It’s about how the Parks Department is thinking about changing the rules about who gets permits. That’s a story that we brought Andy Newman at City Room and said, “Hey, this might work for City Room, but what about getting it into the metro section?” They said, “Yeah, let’s work on that.”

It’s rewarding when we can bring stories to them because I really do think that it’s great for them to have people on the ground. There have been several stories that wouldn’t have gotten a the wider readership or City Room wouldn’t have known about it unless we had been there to see it unfold.

Any other plans?
We’re going to work on ads. We’re also going to work on events. When I was at Grub Street, I did the Grub Street Food Festival, which was just a giant event. We’d certainly love to do something like that with the East Village restaurants, and a flea market as well with all the great boutiques in the neighborhood. That could perhaps generate some income.

Noah Davis is senior editor at Street Fight. He previously covered media at mediabistro.com and Business Insider as well as during multiple stints of full-time freelancing. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, NYMag.com, Wired.com, SportsIllustrated.com, and many other publications.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.