How to Engage Hyperlocal ‘Hard’ News Enthusiasts

Hard news, unless it’s crime or disaster, is a hard sell, even locally — that’s the conventional wisdom. But along comes a new Pew survey that says just the opposite. The survey takes a close look at what it calls “local news enthusiasts” who, it finds, comprise a whopping 72% of all adults.

The survey says older “enthusiasts” – those age 40-plus – rely mostly on print newspapers for their local news, while those under 40 choose the Web. This is good news for the editors of hyperlocal news sites because those under-40 enthusiasts are the more numerous demographic. But the younger enthusiasts are a choosey, restless bunch, and editors have to be continually creative in engaging them with hard news.

That’s do-able. The Pew study finds that the under-40s aren’t just addicted to “soft” news.

Here are their favorite news topics ranked in order of preference:

  • Local restaurants, clubs and bars (45%)
  • Other local businesses (33%)
  • Schools and education (29%)
  • Local politics (28%)
  • Jobs (27%)
  • Housing (21%)
  • Arts and cultural events (20%)
  • Community or neighborhood events (19%)

While the first choice of the under-40s — local restaurants, clubs and bars — qualifies as “soft” news, at least four of the preferred topics — education, local politics, jobs and housing — are “hard.” So it looks as if the under-40 crowd likes a balanced diet of local news. Not only that, they are more social-minded than older enthusiasts who choose print, according to Pew: “…younger local news enthusiasts are significantly more likely…to participate in the digital local news environment. More than half of local news followers under age 40 (56%) [contribute posts to their local website or a social media platform or engage in other networking activities], compared with 33% of older local news followers and 42% of adults who do not follow local news closely.”

What I get from the survey is that hyperlocal sites should not look at hard news as journalistic broccoli. The challenge is to serve up hard news appealingly – to connect it with each user’s gut-level self-interest.

In education, that means news that tells the mother of two children how her neighborhood school is performing compared to other area schools — especially those with the same demographics. It means telling the single male householder not only about local clubs and bars, but also jobs. It means telling the empty-nest couple whether this is a good time to sell their home based on the pattern of recent sales in their neighborhood.

In all cases, it means giving users the space to talk about their news enthusiasms. It’s not always enough to ask, “What do you think?” Sometimes a site has to offer a prompt, like: “Fairview Elementary school’s fifth-grade reading tests score 20% lower than those at Maplewood Elementary. What’s going on? Or, “Derbyshire software job openings lag despite uptick in economy. Why is that?”

Prompts like this can help engage the enthusiasts, who, collectively, are likely to provide content that will elude a news site’s freelancers and even staff reporters. Not only that, the enthusiasts will be primed for spreading the word on social media like Twitter and Facebook. This is not just hopeful conjecture — it’s backed up by the results of the Pew survey.

To make all this happen, a site has to make it easy for enthusiasts to publish their “news” about Fairview School or the availability of local preventative care. They shouldn’t have to get approval from editorial gatekeepers, and what they say should be promoted to get attention and formatted for reaction from other users. The newsroom is not longer centralized on the site but recreated in the community, which now owns it.

Editors wouldn’t go out of business. They’d become what I call “impresarios” whose new job is to bring out the best in community talent – those news enthusiasts who can’t know too much about schools, jobs, housing, politics and other “hard” news topics, and want to share it.

The editor as impresario will unleash more and better community-generated content than the traditional editor will ever squeeze from a couple of freelancers or even a full-time staff reporter who has to spend his or her first six months trying to learn what makes the community tick.

The next step for hyperlocals is to tap into the enthusiasm of advertisers. The conventional wisdom is that advertisers, while they’re deserting print, are skittish about the Web. True, but that’s only part of the story. Numerous surveys agree that advertisers want, and will pay for, an audience that spends more time browsing on the site and clicking on topics that especially interest them.  Businesses know that those browsers and clickers are more like to pay attention to their messages.

Hyperlocal publishers, though, have to make those messages as attractive and persuasive as possible. They can get help from middlemen like PaperG, which provide turnkey ad services that go from message conception to production. The enthusiasts are out there – among audiences and advertisers alike. The challenge to hyperlocal: find them and sell them.

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

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  1. tishgrier
    April 19, 2012

    Tom,

    as I’ve seen locally, many sane people will NOT  participate in online local news discussions IF there is lax moderation and the site is known for trolls.  the bulk of good, solid conversations will occur off-site because of this.  Oh, and after awhile people will know exactly who the trolls are, even when they change screen names–which becomes another deterrant to real and meaningful conversation on a news website.  Many local papers–from fairly large cities to small towns–have missed the opportunities for good local discussion by not providing civil, sane environments for conversation.  IMO, reporters still need to connect with the community and not rely totally on comments

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