Sizing the Industry: Who Gets Counted as ‘Hyperlocal?’

Since we launched Street Fight in April of last year, one question has come up again and again: “How many hyperlocal news sites are currently operating in the U.S. — and is that number growing? And if it’s growing, how fast is it growing?”

That question was put to me for the umpteenth time the other day by a representative from the U.K. innovation charity Nesta, and I explained that (to borrow from a certain president) it depends on what your definition of “hyperlocal” is.

Certainly one can point to well-known independent sites and networks like The Batavian, Baristanet, and WestSeattleBlog as widely accepted examples of the “hyperlocal” genre. Each of these organizations covers a smallish region (a neighborhood or a town), employs professional reporters and editors, and sells advertising to support their journalism.

Getting bigger, there are corporate networks of local sites like Patch, and Daily Voice, each with dozens or hundreds of outlets that could individually qualify as hyperlocal sites to count. You can also include the individual outlets from large, automated community hubs like Topix, American TownsEveryBlock, and others — as well as the networks of sites run by major media companies like Gannett and Belo. All of these outlets can conceivably be part of the count, but it’s difficult to draw a line where the scope of these sites ends and “local” news outlets (like larger regional newspaper sites and local television station sites) begin.

Meanwhile, if you get even smaller, the definition of “hyperlocal” could also include individuals who are publishing neighborhood-level news and information on their own  — becoming de facto hyperlocal publishers without their contributions necessarily taking the form of “journalism” per se (or being a vehicle for local advertising). On some level, you could say that the entire population everywhere “covers” their towns and neighborhoods in a regular way via FacebookTwitterInstagramTumblr and a host of other platforms.

So how big does a site have to be when it stops being “hyperlocal” and becomes “local” (and therefore is removed from the count)? When is it too small? And does a hyperlocal site only count if it sells advertising? Or if the journalists work on the site full-time? How many posts per week are required to qualify? Meanwhile, what about locally minded sites that don’t write exclusively about local news and information — or which rely entirely on national (rather than targeted local) advertising? And how about hyperlocal news and comments aggregators like Topix that have minimal editorial oversight over many thousands of locally focused sites — do they count? These are the aspects we ponder and debate regularly at Street Fight at our editorial meetings and in our aim to help support the sustainability of “hyperlocal.”

Given all the variables, coming up with a hard-and-fast list of hyperlocals can be a daunting task — yet a few brave souls have made attempts. At the end of last year, Street Fight columnist Tom Grubisich compiled his own version of this list of hyperlocal sites — including all of the outlets from Patch, Daily Voice (then Main Street Connect), American Towns, EveryBlock, Topix, as well as an estimated 792 independent sites as well as several networks of hyperlocal sites operated by “legacy” publishers like Tribune and the Boston Globe. He arrived at a count of 49,192 hyperlocal sites in the U.S. It should be pointed out, though, that the vast majority of the sites counted — a full 45,000 — came from aggregators Topix and American Towns.

Tom stresses that the numbers in his survey are estimates, particularly the number of independent sites: “J-Lab and other groups that try to to keep track of indies simply can’t keep up with sites that start up and soon shut down, or go into ‘hibernation’ while their entrepreneurial publishers figure out what to do next. Then there are the aggregators (i.e. Topix and American Towns pre-eminently) that are connected to their communities in a nearly 100% virtual way. Finally, overall, the numbers don’t imply anything about editorial quality or, least of all, sustainability.”

Michael Meyer, a staff writer at the Columbia Journalism Review who runs the organization’s Guide to Online News Startups project aligns with our view, saying that the biggest difficulty he’s had in quantifying the number of hyperlocal publishers is typological: “There is a huge volume of information on the Internet that fits easily under a broad definition of hyperlocal news (coverage of local events, business, government, miscellany), and this content is being published by a broad spectrum of institutions and individuals,” Meyer says. “Of course, it’s easy to say that any and everything that falls within this broad spectrum should be counted as a hyperlocal publisher. I’d also argue that it’s appropriate to have a definition that is as inclusive as possible. The problem is that, once you accept a definition that includes every startup and blog and newspaper supplement and user-generated community events site and locally focused Twitter account, you’re also accepting the impossibility of counting them all.”

Meyer says that for the Guide, CJR decided that it was most interested in “hyperlocal publishers that are primarily devoted to original reporting and are making rigorous efforts to financially sustain that reporting operation.” He says that adopting strict parameters greatly reduced the number of hyperlocal publishers being tallied — but nonetheless his team still has to go to the trouble of discovering sites that don’t end up fitting the definition: “Bottom line, despite the metrics-rich world of online journalism, the ways in which to judge which of these sources of local information are of real value to their community remain qualitative.”

Journalist Jess Durkin has also attempted in the past to come up with a quantitative understanding of the hyperlocal landscape through her news site index, which has cataloged more than 70 entries, mostly of independent community news start-ups, from more than 24 states — it’s not an exhaustive list, but a project in motion. She says that the process is “a moving target because the framework is still so loose. The term ‘hyperlocal’ itself is malleable and means different things to different stakeholders.”

“This space is still forming and there is a near absence of scholarship, policy, and experience to draw any conclusions,” says Durkin. “Everyone is still learning by doing, on both the editorial and business sides. We are working with a developing vocabulary to describe this new online journalism space. As a result, counting ‘hyperlocal’ sites is far from exact at this moment.”

Durkin suggests that eventually a framework will emerge from the patterns that come to be associated with a hyperlocal site: “Forces from the business side of this new journalism, from the news-gathering side, from new internal structural norms, from reader habits, and from the digital platform, to name a few, will shape the space’s identity to where we can start critically examining how this space works. That’s when we can start quantifying things with integrity.”

So, it’s early days. But as hyperlocal publishing evolves, we know that the value of quantifying the industry is increasing.  And along with Meyer and Durkin, we’d like to support the creation of clear figures to chart its growth. To that end, we’d love your thoughts (please leave them in the comments) about what qualities or criteria we might use to better understand the size, scope, and growth of hyperlocal publishing, both in the U.S. and globally.

David Hirschman is co-founder and editorial director of Street Fight.

  1. November 14, 2012

    The hyperlocal landscape in the UK has been explored by Dave Harte and work we’re doing on the Creative Citizens project:

  2. November 14, 2012

    You may wish to note the research work that I’ve done in the UK with regard to counting. I took as a starting an existing database where Hyperlocals effectively self declare. I tended not to agonise what definition of Hyperlocal was as I thought that would only delay the counting.

    So we counted what the existing community of practice in the UK considers to be Hyperlocal. I wanted to answer the question: ‘how many stories do all the Hyperlocals produce?’. I found that Hyperlocal’s ‘Long Tail’ is quite important.

    I produced a short paper available for download here:

    1. November 15, 2012

      Great report, Dave. And I think one of the key differentiators between the US and the UK is that the UK has tended to be more or almost exclusively the domain of “citizens.” Here in the US, we have seen representatives of both citizen journalism efforts and commercially-driven enterprises.

      But my question for you is — if you didn’t define “hyperlocal,” how did you decide which sites to look at, and still call the report a review of “hyperlocal”?

      Laura Rich
      Co-founder, Street Fight

  3. November 14, 2012

    We consider ourselves, or more specifically our affiliated websites within our network, to be hyper local in nature. Though, we’re not “news” centric so much as local lifestyle/human interest as we’re extensions of local community magazines and the content themes they use in print.

    Beyond geography, do you limit “hyper local” to news in your definition?

    1. November 15, 2012

      Hey; thanks for the comment! I think when we’re talking about hyperlocal publishers, we are talking about both local news sites as well as local information (event listings, lifestyle content, etc..) — but, as I wrote, the definition is a bit of a moving target.

    2. November 15, 2012

      Hi Locable —

      At least for us at Street Fight in terms of our coverage, we haven’t limited “hyperlocal” to news in any way at all. Take a look at the stories on our front page on any day.


      1. November 15, 2012

        Not trying to be disagreeable here, but I think most of it does come down to news like material. The things you have on your front page, even those not entirely news driven are controlled by your editors and largely based on fact and intended to promote ways to make the industry profitable.

      2. December 21, 2012

        Indeed, I read the newsletter and visit the site daily because it’s so relevant and what works in ‘news’ often works outside of it and vice versa… clearly the majority of the time people think “hyperlocal” = news.

        I suspect this is because much of the hyperlocal landscape is driven by us more technical folks and we sometimes get myopic thinking the web is offering something new and thus forget about all of the legacy publications.

  4. November 15, 2012

    To me, the formula hasn’t been perfected yet because all of the sites limit their auidence a lot particularly Topix.

    I don’t think Topix really counts as hyperlocal at least in regards to news content. They do have some local aggregated news but a lot of the news in the smaller communities is coming out of the bigger cities and appearing on that particular forum which means it is not really local.. The number of forums they have is excessive. You also have a problem that the aggregated news they have on that site is about the only true news content there. Most of it is gossip, libel and defamation which makes it more the National Inquirer than anything else. If they would require registration and have a little more emphasis on real news, it would be of more value. You can’t be a gossip site and news site both. It runs off all of the news auidence.
    Patch and the Daily Voice are two sites I enjoy because there is some semblance of control. But they need to expand upon the stories they are doing with more human interest stories.

    The biggest thing to me for someone to be hyperlocal and serve real value is several things. One, you have to have a registration process and some editorial and moderation control. If not you end up with a ton of spam, gossip, and you run off users going for news.
    Hyperlocal to me should be local to a degree, but when it gets gossipy it is worthless.. You don’t need a section for every small town in America, but you need to keep things tied to a section of a state or area. Part of hyperlocal is talking about what is going around all over in your area with a little national flavor thrown in. I think Patch does that pretty well and some local blogs and a few other sites. You also need to focus on real community issues such as polls regarding potential new laws, etc. In other words, real issues where people with some level of civility can debate real social and political issues. Ironically, the Topix company that as gone the trash route for that site, has a really encouraging site called Politix that requires registration but sticks to asking socially relevant topics and political views with editorial content. That is the type of site that has potential.

    I am still not sure that the hyperlocal industry is a real moneymaker when all is said and done because of Facebook, Twitter, and a few others. Most local issues are discussed by a tweet or through Facebook with people on their friends list. That is what local discussion usually is, when people actually put their name on something and they discuss things with civility and though the internet is not English class, with some level of journalistic type quality and decent grammar, it is taken more seriously by the masses.

    1. November 15, 2012

      Hi Brendan, I think you share a view of Topix that a lot of people do, which focuses on the content aspect.

      When it comes to defining the hyperlocal “industry,” however, different people have different views on whether quality should be a factor, or what types of content should count.

      Generally speaking, at Street Fight we have taken the view that sustainable business models will achieve what you question: “real moneymaker” models. We applaud all efforts at “hyperlocal,” and our goal has been to support the experimentation of different models that aim toward long-term models that work. Type of content does not a factor into this view, though, when it comes to a “count” of “hyperlocal,” we acknowledge that the definition is still up for grabs. So as David suggests, you might include the individuals who have their own blogs about their neighborhoods and provide content that really serves the community, but they aren’t commercially supported. And you might also count the explicitly commercially-driven (and we should note very successful in that regard) networks like Topix.

      It’s an open question, which makes it an exciting discussion.

      Laura Rich
      Co-founder, Street Fight

  5. November 15, 2012

    Thanks for the great post David. In looking at the “moving target” around “what is a hyperlocal?” — some additional pieces to include for those who are tracking trends or looking for more context: Michele McLellan’s work at RJI in 2010 –
    – offers rich insight on hyperlocals across the nation and an early take on categories of sites, noting Michele has a second version of her list slated for release in
    Q1 2013. Another great resource “SuBMoJour” is one of the
    most comprehensive overviews we’ve come across, for an idea of how many ways this question could be sliced. To weigh in
    on your closing question David, seems that more collaboration across researchers in the
    academy, business leaders in media and those covering the evolving beat of news & information in aggregate, working together to synthesize what we have learned so far, could help pave the way toward a new taxonomy – driven by data and market reality – with a shared language to better understand the nuance of hyperlocal in a quickly evolving market landscape.

  6. November 15, 2012

    Lots of thoughts on this and I think everyone has made valid points.
    I think blogs of local flavor fall into it, as do news and information and let’s not forget events. Content does matter though and I will explain why in a second. If something had very minimal icontrol and gets overly gossipy all it does is basically limit the auidence to a group of people who love berating one another and the town. You have to ask yourself about substanability. My Space was a powerhouse quickly but the numerous ads, slowness of the site, and other factors made it burn out. American Towns on the other end of the spectrum doesn’t have much that you can’t get from a local newspaper and the content is not overly interesting. What you have to have is somewhere in the middle.
    I don’t think the model of American Towns or Topix is the right way for long range profitablity. Some towns are simply too small or underpopulated for those to ever turn a profit and are really more of a headache in some ways. What you really need is a way to deliver real news, real information, real access to events, while throwing in some socially relevant material that a large portion of the community cares about. Most watercooler discussion involves things going on in midsized cities and even large cities in a local radius and things that are occurring throughout a county (if the county is populated enough).
    As a single entity a small town doesn’t have enough going on for there to be need to have a forum or whatever for that town. The hyperlocal focus needs to be on the county itself. Let’s say the county is called Fisher County, Washington and is rural. A good hyperlocal product is going to combine and cover what is going on in the entire county. If your small towns are named A,B,C,and D there is enough individually going on for it to make sense or enough people to care (the local paper is a better option there). But, if you combine what is going on in A,B,C, and D then you have something a larger auidence cares about.
    To me hyperlocal is primarily tied into news related content that generally would have an appeal to a mass auidence in that community and enhances the community. That includes blogs and also celebrities and public officials who try and promote their area.

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