Will AZCentral’s Big Leap Into Hyperlocal Be Model for Other Newspapers?

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Another shrinking print newspaper — the Arizona Republic — has jumped big-time into the digital community journalism space. The Republic has launched 17 neighborhood sites on its AZCentral. The sites are powered by DataSphere, the Seattle-based middleman that is already providing the sales and technology support for community sites launched by Gannett’s TV stations in Top 20 markets. AZCentral is operated by the Republic and its sister TV station, Gannett’s KPNX (NBC).

With more than 2 million unique visitors monthly, AZCentral is the dominant metro website in the Phoenix market. Belo’s AZFamily — operated by that chain’s independent TV station in Phoenix, KTVK — has less than a quarter of AZCentral’s audience. AZCentral attracts more than 2 million unique visitors monthly compared to 465,000 UVs for AZFamily, according to Compete.com

Gannett’s aggressive move in the community-sized space of metro Phoenix comes as that market — hard hit by the recession, especially in housing — is making a strong economic comeback. It has soared to the No. 2 slot among most improving housing-employment markets nationally. A March report by the Brookings Institution puts metro Phoenix in the top-20 “strongest performers.”

The launch of these 17 hyperlocal sites in metro Phoenix is just a start. After its initial move in five Scottsdale neighborhoods and 12 in the East Valley, the site aims to plant its flag in scores of communities through the two-county region, which has a population of 4.2 million.

AZCentral has also lined up 500 volunteers in the “Valley of the Sun” who have said they will be citizen contributors. If that happens, the hyperlocal operation will be producing far more content originating from the community than sites established by Gannett TV properties in other markets. The sites in major markets rely heavily on staff producers for content, much of it rewritten from news releases and police reports, with a smattering of original reporting. A sample article is “15 Absolutely Wild Tattoos” featured on the Herndon community site in Northern Virginia by WUSA, Gannett’s station in Washington, D.C. The article asks users “Which is your favorite?  Would you ever get any of them?” But like most other articles on the site, there were no comments.

For middleman DataSphere, which is powering 1,900 community sites set up by Gannett and other TV chains around the U.S., AZCentral is its first relationship with a newspaper, and one with strong editorial resources. “A large base of experienced journalists and editors is an extremely valuable resource in contributing a significant volume of compelling content,” says Datasphere senior VP of product and marketing Gary Cowan. “This is very helpful in creating more hyperlocal sites that can capture the attention of local communities and become the primary source for community-level news.”

For its TV-station partners elsewhere, Datasphere provides community-based sales support, through call centers in Seattle and Tempe – a Phoenix suburb — because the stations typically don’t have salespeople prospecting neighborhood pizza parlors, dry cleaners and other small businesses. But the Arizona Republic has a large sales team, which means there could be turf battles.

Cowan says DataSshere is prepared to avoid that. “We’ve worked very closely with their [AZCentral’s] sales team to minimize channel conflict so we can work side by side with them as a supplemental extension of their sales resources,” says Cowan. “With this goal in mind, we also further developed our call management capabilities to support this objective.”

The Datasphere model — which has produced 50 million UVs at the 1,900 community sites it powers, according to Cowan — is built around content that seeks to hit the “sweet spot” between aggregation and expensive original reporting, an army of cold-calling salespeople and strong technology that can flow content to a single site and, when desirable, to multiple sites.

If AZCentral’s hyperlocal experiment proves successful, other newspapers — all trying to make a profitable transition from print to digital — may well attempt to go granular in this way too. Thus far, the results of newspapers’ forays into hyperlocal have been problematic. The Denver Post has struggled mightily with the YourHub network it inherited from its now extinct metro competitor, the Rocky Mountain News. The Washington Post scrapped its attempt at hyperlocal, Loudoun Extra, in 2009, two years after launch. The Chicago Tribune turned over operations of its 90-site TribLocal network to low-cost Journatic earlier this year. The Boston Globe is partnering with Northeastern University and Emerson College to produce student-generated editorial content that is less expensive than staff-written articles.

Newspapers have to act quickly and creatively if they want to become significant players in the community digital space. Besides facing competition from DataSphere and its clients, they are watching AOL’s Patch set up sites in their markets. In metro Washington, D.C., for example, where the Post’s dominance has been weakened by the rapid shrinking of its print circulation, Patch has 52 sites. The Post does have a strong network of community sites in suburban Maryland – the Gazettes – but just one weak site for all of Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, the biggest suburb in the Washington market.

Local digital ad revenue has hit $23 billion, according to BIA/Kelsey. To survive, newspapers have to lay claim to a big chunk of those migrating dollars. While many dailies have been since the 19th century, it’s not foreordained they’ll make the leap from the 20th to 21st century.

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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