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

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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.