Hyperlocal Sites Making a Church-and-State Mistake?

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.

  1. September 19, 2012

    Generally, when I read an supposed analysis predicated on the word “apparently,” I stop reading and get back to reporting.

    Alex Salkever, who didn’t attend Block by Block and didn’t speak with any local publishers regarding the conference, nonetheless has an opinion. That’s nice for him; unfortunately for Street Fight readers, it’s based on nonsense.

    Far from “being overtaken by concerns that all the hyperlocal pubs are going out of business,” last week’s conference was a gathering of publishers who shared a wealth of information on how they’re sustaining and, yes, growing their businesses.

    The average local publisher is an experienced journalist, long adept at “navigating the shoals of interest conflicts.”

    A quick glance at the list of BxB attendees shows me many who are doing “highly-critical service journalism” (sic) every day — and pulling in substantial revenue while doing so.

    And most of them are calling sources while they’re doing so, not spinning opinions from a couple of lines in another reporter’s work.

    Local news sites are a maturing segment of the industry who are more poised for long-term success than the lumbering chains. That’s why we’re banding together in the Local Indpendent Online News Publishers association; we believe our publishers are returning local journalism to its roots.

    Dylan Smith

    Chairman, LION: Local Independent Online News Publishers
    Editor & Publisher, TucsonSentinel.com

  2. September 19, 2012

    What Dylan said.

    Of all the utter crap I’ve ever seen published about local online news sites, this piece by Alex Salkever tops the charts.

    Just wow.

    I’d critique, but there’s not enough substance to refute. It’s just a lot of half-baked, half-considered empty phrases that Mr. Salkever has no clue about the topic he pretends to write about.

    He clearly knows nothing about our segment of the industry and knows even less about what happened at Block by Block.

    It’s a shame Street Fight didn’t consider BxB worth actually sending a reporter to to cover, but why they would let a columnist just make shit up about the conference is beyond me.

    1. September 19, 2012

      I generally don’t respond to uncivil feedback. It just shows the worst side of online – when people say things they would never say to someone’s face if they are a polite person. Perhaps if you want to do a detailed criticism of the article it might be more effective than an ad hominem attack.

      1. Dave Bullard
        September 19, 2012

        I do believe that Mr. Owens would say that to your face, and much more. Oh yes.

      2. September 19, 2012

        I’m a pretty plain spoken person. Don’t be so sure I wouldn’t offer an honest critique of your column if we spoke by phone or in person. There was nothing ad hominem about my response. Outside of characterizing your lack of l knowledge about our segment of the industry, I said nothing about your personally. I certainly didn’t call you names or belittle you. I believe this column in particular demonstrates an utter lack of any sort of knowledge or understanding of what is actually going on with local indie news sites. I never turn down a reporter’s call if you ever want to find out what’s actually going on in the industry.

        1. September 19, 2012

          How do you know I lack knowledge? You never even spoke to me. Do you know my background? Seems pretty ad hominem to me. I’m pretty plainspoken, too. But I don’t call people stupid. And I don’t make insulting comments. If you can’t say it to your mother, then don’t say it in comments. A good rule to live by.

          1. September 19, 2012

            Please quote quote I called you stupid.

            You won’t, because you can’t. I never said it.

            I never insulted you.

            I criticized your facile column, and like many people online when their work is criticized, you took it personally.

            I know you lack knowledge because I read your column. It speaks for yourself.

            I also know you didn’t interview me or any of my colleagues who attended BxB. If you had, you would have gained the necessary knowledge to write something worthy of respect (even if we still disagreed).

            As for my mother — thanks for bringing her into it, since this trip to California is probably the last time I’ll ever see her — before she progressed seriously down the path of dementia, we always had very spirited conversations.

            My problem is with your column, not you. Get it? You’re right, I know nothing of you, but a person who really understood indie publishing could never have written this column.

            I applaud Street Fight and Net News Check covering indie publishing, but what’s needed is some actual reporting and analysis based on knowledge, not just spewing what ever pops into somebody’s head.

            There could be a really interesting piece written about church and state issues in indie publishing. I could say this column doesn’t even scratch the surface, but this wouldn’t be quite right. It’s not even on the same planet.

    2. September 19, 2012

      >>It’s a shame Street Fight didn’t consider BxB worth actually sending a reporter to to cover, but why they would let a columnist just make shit up about the conference is beyond me.

      Well said.

  3. Dave Bullard
    September 19, 2012

    ‘Wow’ is right.

    We’re probably the oldest hyperlocal among the LION group, at 13 years of age.

    We started by doing hard news, won some local awards for it, and continue doing hard news to this day.

    Our revenue stream, while not enough to finance my dream home in Aruba, is in the 6 figures and is more than enough to pay the bills.

    It is not only possible to be profitable and do hard news, it is the only true path to a profit.

    Serious news that only you can report is the best way to set yourself apart in the market, because everyone has the same no-calorie community news (see “Patch, imminent failure of” for details) and Facebook has taken control of personal news.

    I wasn’t at BxB either, but I have a feeling I know more about what went on there than this columnist does.

    In the future, Street Blight, how about you get your columns on hyperlocals FROM hyperlocals. Novel idea, huh?

    1. September 19, 2012

      Couldn’t agree more!

      1. September 19, 2012

        Are you offering, Dave? Ask Laura. Am sure she’s open. Weekly column.

        1. Dave Bullard
          September 19, 2012

          Alex, if I could, I would delete the last paragraph of that comment. It’s intemperate.

          SF intends to do well. I just find very little of value in it on a day to day basis and when I do take a look, as today, I find myself very frustrated by what I read.

          As I wrote elsewhere, I find the analysis lacking as it is based on suppositions and a large leap of logic that isn’t supported by fact. We’ve all broken the wall between news and sales because there’s no choice. Doesn’t mean we can’t do hard news; in fact, it argues the exact opposite — hard news is the clearest path to profit as it makes you indispensable in the shortest amount of time.

          1. September 19, 2012

            Why don’t you take us up on it? Or every other hater in this column? Write for Streetfight. Make it your own. Laura would love it. I’m dead serious. And help her set up a Hyperlocal News Event. She would love that, too. You can direct your ire for progress or just to vent your spleen. It’s really up to you. As for me, I am not really worried about your comments. I was the solo reporter for a small paper – covering drivebys, school boards, car accidents and everything else. I did this about 20 years ago. As for you and everyone else commenting here, I don’t know your backgrounds nor would I presume to. I am sure you are all, actually, pretty nice people with strong opinions who would be very civil face to face.

          2. September 19, 2012

            And if you read my column closely, I nowhere say that you guys cannot do hard news. Not at all the point. Further, you make six figures. You are in the upper 1%. You have broken the wall successfully and artfully. Most hyperlocals, I think, are still struggling on how to navigate this area. That’s my opinion (note – it’s a column, not a news piece). What makes me very angry is the assumptions that I know nothing about your business. Since you and the others know nothing about me, at face value, that’s a pretty premature assessment. I’ve actually worked at two hyperlocals / locals (one that I mention below, the other a regional business magazine) and published a hyperlocal travel site. I don’t know your specific business but I have a lot more experience in this realm than the average person. And I’ve done a number of business models around other hyperlocal businesses. (To be honest – they didn’t pencil out at the time and I didn’t like the economics of local advertising – being totally honest here). So rather than just tell me how I am wrong, am ignorant, dont know your business – you could ask me why I think what I do. Then its a nice dialogue and maybe we learn something from each other. The tone in the comments is just disappointing. As for the talk about me traveling to Block by Block – I’ve never been paid a dime, there is no travel budget. I comment on my personal experiences and what I see and read – like many, many other bloggers. And, frankly, like some of the people you publish in your own publications.

  4. September 19, 2012

    The BxB conference was ‘overtaken by concerns that all the hyperlocal pubs are going out of business’…??? What conference were YOU at, Alex? The BxB conference I attended in Chicago last weekend was not overtaken by any such concerns — not by a long shot. There were many success stories shared there, my own included.

    Not only that, it’s WAY off base to portray us as people who refuse to let go of old models such as the ‘separation of church and state,’ wringing our hands as we helplessly watch our endeavors go down the drain because we just can’t bear to tear down that wall.

    In point of fact, we are all pioneering news entrepreneurs and every one of us recognizes this fundamental fact about our business model. That doesn’t mean to hell with ethics, we’ll only write stories that make our advertisers look good. I can think of no faster way to kill your credibility as a news outlet — and ultimately, your business, because in the end, that’s the very thing we’re selling. It’s what makes readers loyal. Our credibility. I come out of a community news background and navigating these waters is something I’m very familiar with.

    Speaking of credibility: What are your credentials for offering us advice on how to run our businesses or practice the profession of journalism? Furthermore, who’s your source of this misinformation about what went on at BxB, upon which your “advice” is predicated?

    You’ve fabricated a discussion at a conference you “apparently” didn’t attend, you’ve taken issue with the invented statements you’re attributing to people you “apparently” didn’t interview, and then you’re dispensing advice on how to do something you’ve “apparently” got no experience in yourself.

    Just another reminder why I no longer bother with StreetFight on a regular basis.

    It’s the credibility thing.

  5. September 19, 2012

    Was the writer at the conference? We had a great turnout again this year. Three years ago, discussion was about whether you could build a business around a local news site. This year, the most valuable discussions were at a much higher level – looking at best practices and tactics for boosting revenue and readership. It’s tempting to buy the conventional wisdom that this doesn’t work – that most of us are maxed out at $30,000 a year and the model isn’t viable. But if you were in the room and met those who are making it, you would find enough of us with revenues beyond six figures (my sites included) and real business structures to say it is viable.

  6. September 19, 2012

    I wrote the first comment on this piece, noting that Street Fight didn’t bother to send a reporter. And the comment was deleted. Hmmm…

    1. September 19, 2012

      Hi Krystal –

      That’s not a practice of ours. We don’t have a record of that comment on the back end, either.

  7. September 19, 2012

    Thanks, all, for your comments, and your close read of Street Fight.

    Like all of you, we value a free and open press. We also value factual accuracy and opinions that help further the dialogue toward lasting, sustainable business models in hyperlocal media.

    As Alex, who should be read more closely on a regular basis, asserts, hyperlocal publishers might consider flexibility in their models so that they bring in revenue, so that in turn they sustain their businesses, so that they can continue to serve their communities. He has raised this topic based on the astonishing news, as reported by NetNewsCheck (see link in the piece), that many hyperlocal publishers report an abysmal $30,000 per year in revenue.

    If we at Street Fight are to do our jobs in supporting the growth and sustainability of hyperlocal media, we have to raise a flag around that.

    And we’re not the only ones saying this. Michelle McLellan, who spoke at the event, reportedly told the audience exactly that:

    Per NetNewsCheck: “They need to be pushed to start thinking of earned revenue from day one,” McLellan said.

    If Alex mischaracterized the event, then so did other reporters who were there first-hand.

    As for our own coverage? Stay tuned. We will be posting a piece in the coming days from a correspondent we sent to cover Block by Block. Look forward to more of your comments then and continuing the dialogue on growing the industry.

    Laura Rich
    CEO, Street Fight

    1. September 19, 2012

      Laura, if Alex attended our other sessions or past Block by Blocks or followed any of our discussions he would know many publishers are trying to be flexible in their models and are striving to find diverse revenue sources. The revenue issue was the hot topic a year ago at the BxB11 conference.I haven’t talked to any publishers who spoke with a reporter for Street Fight at BxB12. If the comments seem harsh here it is because there is a lack of trust given past stories that include mistakes, slants and a total disconnect with our issues/realities.

    2. Dave Bullard
      September 19, 2012


      First, the “news” of the average revenue reported at BxB is so loosely sourced as to be actually the subjective impression of the NetNewsCheck writer.

      Your columnist then makes a large leap of logic — that the presumed levels of income correlate to sites that maintain the wall between sales and news.

      It’s logically faulty on its face. When a site runs on one or two people, and the owner is the journalist, the owner absolutely has a hand in the financial side.

      And most of us have done that without falling to the Rotary Club meeting coverage level of many print community weeklies.

      All of which makes the point of the commentary — disclose conflicts but don’t sweat them — obvious.

      I’m glad Street Fight sees itself as an advocate for hyperlocals. However my impression is that very, very few publishers in our field take Street Fight seriously.

    3. Michele McLellan
      September 19, 2012

      Laura – My comments – in an interview not at a session – pertained specifically at journalists who have started sites with a passon for local but no business expertise. The Block by Block publishers are more experienced and don’t need that push. They are bootstrapping and growing revenue yearly. Also, could you please spell my name correctly?

    4. September 19, 2012

      “He has raised this topic based on the astonishing news, as reported by
      NetNewsCheck (see link in the piece), that many hyperlocal publishers
      report an abysmal $30,000 per year in revenue.”

      And there’s the rub, Laura. Apparently, SF views going from zero to $30K in a year abysmal. We consider it a good start.

      SF has taken that figure as a broadbrush and applied it to a wide range of sites, which includes sites doing $100K to $200K and more along with sites that are not yet doing any revenue for a variety of reasons.

      The segment of the industry encompassed by Block by Block is both diverse and and young. To day any level of success is abysmal is simply not thinking the issue through.

      BxB, the most important gathering of local publishers of the year, had a lot of success stories to share this year, a lot of energized publishers who openly discussed both the good and the bad of trying grow revenue in a segment of media with no road map. Perhaps your reporter picked up on this. Rather than dismissing entrepreneurial spirit as “abysmal” perhaps SF readers might learn from your reporter how energized local publishers are trying to step up their game, to level up, as it were, both those doing six figures in revenue (as my company does) and those with no real revenue yet.

      Your reporter might confirm Michael Depp’s viewpoint, found a more optimistic viewpoint (not that his was all that pessimistic) or truly concluded the situation is abysmal (thought I doubt it).

  8. scottbrodbeck
    September 19, 2012

    First of all, thank you for reporting on our segment of the industry.

    I don’t have any major issue with your overall message here, but I have to address the claim that “Most of them… do not engage in highly-critical service journalism because they understand that the merchant community is their lifeblood.”

    Personally, I don’t think it’s incredibly off-base to say that my two sites don’t publish many scathing stories about our local business communities. But that’s not a business consideration on our part, it’s because we’re not in the business of doing reviews. We report news about local businesses — openings, closings, etc. — but we don’t try to pass judgement on the businesses. The reason for that is simple: instead of giving our opinion in the form of self-indulgent newspaper-style reviews, we let our readers give their opinions in the comments and on social media. Then we get a wealth of diverse views, without need to pretend like we’re the only one with an opinion that matters, whether it’s positive or negative.

    If someone is looking for major business-related scandals in a local community, the fact is there really aren’t many to be found, if any at all. But if there was ever any legitimate, publication-worthy negative news about one of our advertisers, you’re damn right that we would cover it. And we have enough clients that we don’t have to worry about the loss of one shutting us down.

    1. September 19, 2012

      FWIW: There are at least two businesses in our community not advertising with us because they didn’t like their coverage of them (or there owners). News is news. You report it and let the chips fall where they may. There are always more advertisers out there.

  9. September 20, 2012

    I wasn’t at BxB so I can’t comment on whether the various summaries are accurate. But to the one bizarre criticism in this story – the suggestion that community news outlets don’t do “service journalism” (defined, apparently, as reviews) and worse yet, that we don’t do it because we don’t want to alienate potential advertisers – WHAT? If you are truly interested in one perspective from a market-leading, long-profitable community-news outlet that does not do reviews, here’s the somewhat radical reason why: We do not believe ours or ANY news organization should be writing/publishing editorials, reviews, other types of opinion pieces because *our opinion is of no more value than any reader’s opinion*. We have great places for readers to offer their opinions – we have a restaurant guide, with a comment section available on each restaurant’s individual page; we have a robust 5-year-old discussion forum which has rants/raves/recommendations; we have comment sections after every story we publish. That’s where opinions belong. We as publishers/journalists are here to provide information – which we do, amply, regarding local businesses of all types, and particularly regarding restaurants. That’s a service. My idea of “service journalism” would involve providing a community service such as digging into what your government’s up to. I read agendas, court files, development applications, arrest warrants, myriad documents daily/weekly to look for what the readers need to know but generally can’t and/or won’t find for themselves. We uncovered a city-park project that had been almost a year in the works, without a shred of public knowledge/discussion, and within days, 300 people crowded a community meeting to express outrage at what they considered to be an inappropriate proposal – and the project was withdrawn the next day. A regional nonpartisan civic organization honored WSB for “Government Reporting of the Year” even before that story – an award for which candidates are independently nominated, NOT one that (like so many other awards) can be applied for. Gosh, I suddenly find myself longing for the days when “hyperlocals” were being criticized for not enough of that, rather than for not enough restaurant reviewing!

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