Do Datasphere’s 50M UVs Make It a Model for Hyperlocal Scale?

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Patch brags, justifiably, about its reach — 9.9 million unique visitors per month. But that number is dwarfed by the reach of community sites operated by a collection of legacy TV stations powered by DataSphere Technologies – 50 million UVs. It’s amazing that the success of these stations’ sites doesn’t get a tenth of the attention (not all positive, of course) that’s lavished on Patch.

Go to some of the sites and count the ads. Try South Park (not that one) run by WBTV Ch. 3 in metro Charlotte. The site has 27 small-square ads. Okay, metro Charlotte is a Top 20 market. So how about mid-size Montgomery-Selma? Check out WBRC Ch. 6’s Anniston site, which has 21 small squares. It’s true that not every community site of the legacies is brimming with ads. WSFA Ch. 12’s Demopolis in mid-size Birmingham has only four squares, but the station’s Auburn site has 12.

It’s true that many of these legacy-brand hyperlocals would get low marks from j-school professors. The South Park site near Charlotte offers this less-than-gripping headline question: “Why Do Gas Prices Come With a 9/10 on the End?” The story comes from an AAA handout, and it doesn’t have much to do with South Park. I searched the site for stories about South Park — which has a population of about 28,000 — but I couldn’t find a single one.

WBRC’s Anniston site did a little better. It featured “Anniston ‘East Side Rapist’ Gets Life, Swears at Victims.”  The story was written by one of the station’s own news reporters, which is shared with the Anniston and other community sites, lowering their editorial costs.

Gary Cowan, who is SVP for products and marketing for Datasphere, explained the overall editorial strategy for the sites his company powers in a Q & A in Street Fight last August:

“On one end, you have this purely automated aggregation-type model along the lines of or Topix. … Then on the other end of the spectrum you have this heavy, expensive, manual model which is more like the Patch model. … At one extreme, your costs are very high, so you better figure out how to monetize it quickly. At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got an experience is not that compelling, so the costs are low — you don’t have to make as much money, but it’s going to be difficult for a site like that to become the center of a neighborhood community. So, what we’re trying to do is pick the sweet spot in between.”

In December I looked at one of Datasphere’s major clients, KOMO TV in metro Seattle, and estimated that a typical community site in its network generated about $45,000 annually in ad sales, based on overall revenue of owner Fisher Communications. Cowan wouldn’t agree with or dispute the number, saying only that all 126 Fisher community sites were “sustainable.”

But he added: “Why do you think the cost of running one of these sites is anywhere near close to $45,000? Remember, the basic premise of our approach is that we leverage existing assets and spread fixed costs across a large new base. Yes, there are definitely incremental costs associated with setting up and running these sites, but nothing like what would be required to set up and run a single standalone site as a compelling business.”

So what Fisher and its client community sites excel at is scaling, with superb technology — and, of course, finding that sweet spot between the aggregators and high-cost editorial operations.

Is this the future of hyperlocal?  The 50 million unique visitors to the TV stations’ community sites may be providing a kind of answer.

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.