Steve Outing: No One’s Got a ‘Magic Bullet’ for Hyperlocal Revenue

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Media veteran Steve Outing has kept a close eye on the changing hyperlocal landscape over the past decade. He wrote an influential column for Editor & Publisher magazine from 1995-2009, and in 2005 he founded the Enthusiast Group, “an online media company deploying grassroots media and social networking to outdoor and adventure sports” (which eventually folded in 2007). Currently, he is the founder and program director at the Digital News Test Kitchen at CU-Boulder, which studies the places where journalism and technology collide. Street Fight recently sat down with Outing to talk about where hyperlocal has been, where it’s going, and how the tech world and journalism are evolving together. 

In your experience, what are some of the qualities that can make a hyperlocal project successful?
Things have changed a lot in hyperlocal, obviously. It kind of started with Backfence. was one of the earlier ones. It was one of the ones that was trying to create a network where you start out at one city and then you use the platform to try to get it in a bunch of other [cities], Patch is kind of the same sort of thing. So that’s always a bit of a struggle.

It seems like some of the hyperlocal ones that have been more successful have actually been the ones that have been more independent. Where the person, maybe the editor or the publisher, has lived in the town or just has a passion about it and people know them. So, I think that’s one real key, at least in terms of the editorial side, of getting readership.

How do you think hyperlocal has evolved over the past decade?
 A big part of it is more incorporating and crowd-sourcing from social media and all of the mobile stuff that we can now tap into to find out what’s going on, that kind of stuff. So, I would say back in the early days, people were building platforms and the idea there was more of a platform and you were encouraging people to put up their neighborhood news and little league scores and all that sort of stuff without any professional content so it was kind of siloed off into its own site. So that’s probably more how it started and then it evolved and some publishers started integrating it a little bit more…

More recently, there would be all of the social media stuff that you can tap into, whether you’re putting together a Storify or your bringing in tweets and YouTube videos and all that stuff. … Yet another new buzzword is “SoLoMo,” for “social,” “local,” “mobile,” so that’s another good way to use that to tap into local news.”

Many hyperlocal publications are trying non-profit models these days. Do you think there’s a way for both the profit and non-profit models to succeed? Is one better than the other?
In terms of the non-profits, it’s pretty rough. Because if they’re lucky, they tend to start out with foundation money, like Chicago News Cooporative, which is now just shutting down. And then, if they can’t figure out some model to sustain themselves pretty quickly, they’re obviously in trouble.

Texas Tribune seems to be doing okay for now. Although, what I’ve read about them, they have seemed to create more revenue streams than some of the others. Where as some of the others have been a little too dependent on foundation funding.

I think the problem with foundation money is that it’s often meant for the first couple of years to get people started and then you have to have a plan after the two years. You have to have some other things going on. Most people who follow business models for this sort of stuff will tell you no one’s figured out the magic bullet, so you really have to think about a lot of different revenue streams.

It seems like some of the hyperlocal ones that have been more successful have actually been the ones that have been more independent. Where the person, maybe the editor or the publisher, has lived in the town or just has a passion about it and people know them.– Steve Outing

What kind of role do you think technology should be playing in journalism — particularly where hyperlocal is concerned?
There’s so many great open source things available now and a lot of it came out of the Knight News Challenge… They gave away, I think it was, five million dollars a year over five years, and Google even kicked in a couple of million, and this is still continuing. Basically, they were funding all kinds of journalism innovation projects including a lot of things that are really useful for people.

A good example would be Document Cloud. That’s a way to find public documents and there’s an easy way to kind of mark them up and make them more accessible. They have tools for doing data analysis on public records and stuff like that. So, even if you’re running a really small, low-budget, hyperlocal site, now there’s all these great tools that are available for you for free.

What is the Digital News Test Kitchen all about?
Primarily, it’s sort of the horizon-watcher part of the journalism and mass communication program. Right now, I’m working with grad students on research projects, doing experiments with new technologies and doing collaborations with start-up companies that are doing some interesting stuff that’s applicable to journalism and reporting. In the fall, Paul Voakes, who is our former dean [of SJMC] and is also the faculty director for the Test Kitchen Program; he and I are going to co-teach a class on emerging technology in journalism. A lot of that will be about identifying very new things or things that are just starting to pop-up and helping students figure out how to leverage those for storytelling or for research or for business models. Obviously mobile is going to be a huge area, the class will probably focus a lot on that.

If you could invest in one hyperlocal company today, which would it be and why? What stands out to you right now?
I’ve been really impressed with Banjo recently. Not to focus just on that company, but just the idea of what they can do in terms of aggregating all this social data. They have this handy little app that’s useful for finding out what’s going on around you and could be really useful during a particular news event. If you could zoom in, and see all the social media activity around that event, that would be really cool.

Hopefully there’s also people working on just trying to make sense of that [data]. I hope someone is working on being able to have the Twitter firehose come in and then being able to identify, “here in Fort Collins there’s this big cluster of activity” and be able to do a bit of analysis… And from the business perspective, the whole idea of mobile targeting for advertising.

Isa Jones is an intern at Street Fight.