How Partnerships Can Help Hyperlocal Sites Expand Their Reach

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oakland-local-20091105-095733There’s a saying that’s echoing more insistently today in hyperlocal publishing: “Don’t compete – collaborate.”

Susan Mernit puts that saying into practice, and successfully, at Oakland Local, which she co-founded in 2009.

“OL’s” No. 1 focus is the City of Oakland, but the city and a big chunk of The Local’s readership are part of Alameda County. Until recently, The Local didn’t have the resources to cover Alameda, even though Oakland is part of the county and the seat of government is in downtown. So what did the hyperlocal do to get on top of Alameda and how it spends $2.4 billion annually — of which about $500 million comes from Oakland taxpayers? It forged a partnership with another publication that keeps a sharp focus on Alameda: the East Bay Citizen.

“They go to all the county meetings, and all the county offices,” Mernit says. “Before we collaborated, that was a hole in our coverage.”

Big, far-reaching decisions on regional issues like transportation, water and the environment that directly affect Oakland are reached at those meetings and in those offices. The hole is now being filled, but, for Mernit, who is editor and publisher, collaboration involves more than connecting the Local’s content supply line to the East Bay Citizen’s spigot. “EBC” has a sometimes irreverent approach to news, especially in its coverage of maneuvering and feuding among the county’s especially contentious politicos.

“We’re more cautious and conservative than they are,” says Mernit. “I don’t know what their political agenda is, and I don’t care. As long as they source their work and it meets our standards, that’s what matters.”

The partnership with East Bay Citizen is the most recent example of Oakland Local’s ambitious collaboration strategy. The keystone of that strategy is its OL’s relationship with KQED, the No. 1 public radio station nationally in listenership. KQED promotes content from OL on the station’s heavily trafficked homepage. This strengthens OL’s audience, not only in Oakland but in neighboring communities like Berkeley and Hayward. On-air “debriefs” featuring OL staff build the site’s brand (and possibly provide an intangible form of compensation for underpaid reporters and editors).

Mernit is broadening OL’s collaboration to add more depth to the publication’s major news priorities in 2013 and 2014 – education and public safety. “The City of Oakland had one of the worst performing school districts in the U.S., but in the past two years, it’s one of the most improved,” she said. “We were surprised. We’re digging deeper to find out why.”

To get to the “why,” OL is partnering with five nonprofit groups, four of which are working with Oakland youth. Through the youth partnerships, OL will publish stories written by youth and others by youth in combination with the website’s staff.

Besides improving OL’s content, collaboration strengthens, directly and indirectly, its revenue streams, Mernit says. The youth partnerships, for example, are being funded with a $112,000 grand from the California Endowment.

Collectively, OL’s partnerships, especially the one with KQED, build an audience that is attractive to businesses in the $10 billion retail market represented by OL’s readers. OL is a nonprofit, but it gets 55% of its revenue from advertisers (with grants comprising 40% and training and events the rest).

OL also has a very practical reason to pursue collaboration: Most of its traffic comes from search and social networking in the East Bay, which is part of one of the most digitally plugged-in regions in the country.

“I think Susan Mernit is a classic example of a news entrepreneur who has a total comfort level with broad collaborations,” says Jan Schaffer, director of J-Lab at American University in Washington, D.C., which funded nine collaboration projects connecting bigger publications with smaller ones, including the one between Oakland Local and KQED. “She sees these collaborations as building capacity and visibility for OL as well as accessing more good content for Oakland Local.” (Earlier, J-Lab provided the seed funding that got OL launched in 2009.)

Assessing collaborations generally, Schaffer, said, “When they juice content, build visibility, and add to an authoritative report, they provide the baseline for added value that is, in my view, a key criterion for sustainability.”

As sold as she is on collaboration, Mernit says it’s important for each potential partner to know exactly what the other is seeking. She said one potential OL partnership didn’t happen because the other party said its quid for the quo was traffic. “But we have lots of traffic,” she said. “That’s not enough.”

“Spell it out in a memorandum of understanding,” she said.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.