With Offbeat Features, Hyperlocals Can Spark Better Engagement

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One of the great media successes of the bygone print era, journalistically and business-wise, was the old Life magazine. At its peak in the early 1960s, Life, founded with the mission “To see life; to see the world,” had a  weekly circulation of more than 8 million. Fat with advertising — cars, cigarettes and other fervently purchased products — the average issue had more than a hundred super-sized pages.

Life was a go-to-the-action news provider, covering major war with a battalion of devil-may-care photographers, like Robert Capa, who died when he stepped on a landmine during the French war in Vietnam, and David Douglas Duncan, who followed the Marines to and from their ill-fated offensive through North Korea to the Chosin Reservoir at China’s border. It was also a high-minded curator of culture, publishing Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Churchill’s WWII memoirs. But Life also served up serial eye candy, including this drop-dead pinup of actress Rita Hayworth in a negligee on her satin-sheeted bed in 1941, to keep junior, dad and even grandpa reaching into the mailbox for the next weekly issue. The formula worked for decades — until mass-circulation picture magazines like Life were pulped by television.

Maybe hyperlocal news sites should take a look at that formula, and see how they could adapt it to their news mix. It’s already used by some general sites, like the well-performing Huffington Post, which seamlessly runs long-form pieces on the presidential campaign, the Libor interest-rate scandal and climate change cheek-by-buttock with features like “Are These Bikini Bottoms Too Scandalous?” — which could have been ripped from the pages of a 1946 issue of Life. I’m not saying that hyperlocals should start running pinups. But a steady diet of stories about school budget hearings and local festivals isn’t enough. Why not spice up the homepage with offbeat features — especially ones that have strong visuals?

Some sites do this type of thing well. Like Sheepshead Bites, with its regular, top-of-the-homepage puzzle feature, where users can spend a few minutes assembling the movable electronic pieces of images of familiar sites like natural treasure Sheepshead Bay. Stories about road projects, as important as they are for mobility, can glaze over eyes when they drone on about technicalities like “vtpd’s” and are crammed with cost and grant numbers. Charlottesville (Va.) Tomorrow climbed out of that ditch with “Wouldn’t You Like a Better View of the Western Bypass?” — using Kickstarter to collect pledges from users so CVille Tomorrow could build a 3D model of a major road plan. With 16 days to go, $2,429 was pledged to the $7,000 goal. Talk about engaging the community!

Sometimes all it takes to make a homepage sparkle is a couple of bright smiles, like this winning photo of two volunteers at the recent Westport (Conn.) Public Library book sale that appeared in Westport Now. The photo gives fresh meaning to “grip-and-grins.”

What all three of these examples have in common is not just that they’re intensely local; they demonstrate that commitment with as much emotion as fact-gathering. They tell users that the site cares about the place they’ve made their home. That caring, even when it’s about a road project, tugs, ever so much, at the heart. Just as important, if not more so, the three examples send the same message to local businesses, who, in a time of fast-changing media offerings, are making new decisions about where they’ll put their marketing, or, in the case of nonprofit CVille, pledge dollars.

Local businesses clearly are shifting some of their marketing/advertising dollars to deals. That’s competition. Local businesses have made Groupon the dominant pure-play in per-market ad revenue. Deal makers won’t go away. Why should they? But news hyperlocals can make a powerful competing pitch to businesses: “We tell the story of the community that’s yours and your customers.’” To the average merchant, who not only does business in the community but likely lives there, those words can be as persuasive — and certainly more provable, than Groupon’s “Get tons of new customers.”

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.