Hyperlocal Sites Making a Church-and-State Mistake?

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I grew up reading a local neighborhood weekly newspaper, the Baltimore Messenger. I’m sure it was a struggle for the company to pay its bills. I read it mostly for all the hyperlocal sports. On a few occasions, my own name got mentioned and once or twice my photo appeared in the sports section. But I also read the politics, the news about new stores, the restaurant reviews. Outside of the politics section, I don’t think I can remember a single critical review of a local business or restaurant. And, frankly, that’s just fine. I didn’t really care if the local reviewer slammed a local pizza joint. I’d probably try it anyway. And if they gave it a bit of rosy hue, usually they did make an honest effort to steer me towards the better items on the menu.

In writing about the politics and the issues impacting businesses beyond the service journalism, the Messenger could hit hard sometimes. And that was okay, too. As a sophisticated reader, I could see a fuzzy but mostly clear line between service journalism and news reporting. If the paper wrote a critical article about a travel agency that left customers in a lurch with bogus air coupons, I could easily distinguish this as hard news versus the softer news we see in restaurant reviews.

So let’s be honest here. In a small community, you don’t break out the brass knuckles until you really need to fight. Right now, hyperlocal news sites are struggling to earn money. In part, that’s because they have imposed the artificial burden of a full church-state separation (ads / news) like the New York Times and other top-flight pubs. In an ideal world, this separation works. But in small town papers or small papers covering hyperlocal areas, church and state will never be separate — and never have been.

Why am I writing this? Because the Block by Block Summit was apparently overtaken by concerns that all the hyperlocal pubs are going out of business. Which is a fair concern, considering that many are and that most are not earning enough money to keep the lights on for their (hopefully sole) proprietors. The number tossed about at Block by Block was $30,000 for a site in revenues, which is clearly not a going concern.

Now, we’ve chronicled some hyperlocals that are doing just fine. They have six-figure revenue streams from local merchants. Most of them, I would add, do not engage in highly-critical service journalism because they understand that the merchant community is their lifeblood, in part, but also because in a ranking order of what’s important in those communities, the crispness of pizza crust at Polly’s Palace is not even in the Top 100.

So the moral here is, for hyperlocals, don’t even worry about church and state beyond disclosing potential conflicts when real news intrudes into the service realm somehow. Don’t make it harder to keep the lights on than it already is. Yes, a story will come up when an advertiser is involved in a way that shades darkly on the business paying the bills for the publisher. But small town papers have been navigating these shoals for decades, if not centuries. As the MinnPost CEO told us last week, it’s critical to go after every revenue stream you can think of. The flip side of this coin is, don’t let extreme interpretation of the canons of journalism get in the way of your publication’s survival. Because a moderately conflicted local journalism outlet is far better than no one covering the fire, the PTA meeting, or the Little League Playoffs at all.

Alex Salkever is an executive at a cloud computing company and a former technology editor of BusinessWeek.com. The views expressed in his column are his own and not those of his employer. His Personal Fight column appears every Wednesday on Street Fight.