#SFSNYC: Making Hyperlocal Media Work

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SW_20130115_NY_5270As print media continues its simultaneous swan dive and self-reinvention, how to create engaging, responsive, and responsible journalism online is increasingly a key question for hyperlocal media. Amid a body-strewn battlefield on which some of the smartest media companies have fallen, founders of post-2009 start-ups — Leela de Kretser, publisher of DNAinfo (New York City and Chicago); Zohar Yardeni, CEO of Daily Voice (Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts); and Josh Fenton, cofounder of GoLocal24 (in Providence and in Worcester, MA) — discussed ways to beat the curse during a panel discussion at the Street Fight Summit in New York City.

DNAinfo, which first launched in eight neighborhoods in media-saturated New York City and just launched in Chicago, takes a hard-hitting approach: It reports on neighborhoods and communities, listens to the merchants, obsessively checks metrics, and invests in good reporters and writers to do it. And it takes advantage of existing infrastructure, de Kretser said: “Everyone says investigative journalism is so expensive. Investigative journalism is cheaper than it’s ever been. We have databases.”

The key factors may seem obvious, but they’re nonnegotiable: good, targeted content. A few million in start-up capital doesn’t hurt either. As de Kretser said, “No one can do it if you don’t have a patient single investor who understands it” and knows how it works, invested in the actual business. And the company has seen serious growth, she said: “Everyone loves to throw around numbers like an 11,000% increase — it’s easy to play the math game — but Chicago really is 11,000% better than what we expected it to be.”

Daily Voice, meanwhile, concentrates on suburban and rural markets, and to date 45% of its 50 towns read its websites. Yardeni talks not just to start-up-world people but to those with old-media wisdom. “Smart folks in community news all say same thing, everyone who was involved in ’80s, ’90s rollups. The competitive landscape is the first or only thing they talk about: Where are the businesses spending money?”

Panelists also stressed that getting the story first matters more than ever for hyperlocal media organizations. DNAinfo has seen stories go national and international; GoLocal24 has broken three stories that generated federal investigations in Providence, R.I.,  and its ranking of all the hospitals in New England garnered a million page views.

Aggressive social media is key for Fenton as well, as are media partnerships (with Clear Channel, Entercom, PBS, GoGo Cast). For Fenton, whose Providence page views are up 500%, attracting midsize advertisers and being able to be responsive to advertisers at all levels is essential. That is not to mention the most basic notion of all: “You’ve got to get an audience. You’ve got to build a loyal audience. It’s no different from television or radio or anything else.”

Amid the hemorrhaging of media jobs in New York and worldwide, what’s the prospect of a renewed labor market in new media? De Kretser, who poached her managing editor from the Chicago Sun-Times, is a fan of citizen journalism — and thinks it’s an essential complement to paid writing — but ultimately looks for staffers who both write well and breathe social. Fenton has found that daily newspaper writers can’t always keep up with the constant demand for copy.

As De Kretser put it: “A story’s a story. If it’s interesting, it’ll do well.”

And it serves a social good, too: “If you don’t have a functioning press, you have a hard time having a democracy,” as Fenton reminded the audience.

Just make sure you have a Tumblr account.

 Photo credit: Shana Wittenwyler