Realigning News Sites to Connect ‘Local’ and Interests

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pinsWhen we talk about hyperlocal, it’s usually about taking content and advertising down to the neighborhood (and sub-neighborhood) level. But it’s possible to go a bit deeper than that, and I think there is still a lot of work to be done around combining local content and advertising with people’s interests.

For the longest time, newspapers have covered local areas by dividing them into beats — crime, schools, transportation, and so on. In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion around newsrooms shifting their beats away from reflecting these kinds of traditional print sensibilities and more toward a reflection of how people live their lives. An example of how this shift would work: instead of having a city politics reporter cover the city council’s plans to build a new dog park, you would have the pets reporter cover it.

A number of newspapers have attempted this kind of reorganization, with varying degrees of success. The problem is still in how local news and information sites are programmed. Most local sites still have the traditional local/news, entertainment, sports, lifestyle, business and opinion sections, and that’s the way that users have become accustomed to navigating our sites. When I was working on the redesign of the Tribune newspaper sites, we had many conversations with our newspapers on the renaming of internal sections — but, in the end, all of them settled back on the standard sections.

What we are failing to do is to give people a good way to follow the topics or interests that they have. I think we need to do two things to help users do this:

1.) Better organization and programming — The idea of programming content for websites is not an easy one. There are so many users all with different interests all visiting at different rates — some once a week, others daily. One of the most interesting ideas I’ve seen lately is what Fast Company has done with some of the topics. They are doing what they call “slow live-blogging.” The idea is to take a topic and continuously update one article as the topic evolves.

While news websites have long had topic pages, these sections failed in that they were just an automatic feed of a named entity. Instead of picking a topic like “Social Media,” Fast Company is picking topics like “How to think like an engineer.” Then as they write more about that topic they add to the top and update the headline. As a result, the magazine has seen much higher engagement with its online content.

Going back to my example of the dog park, one could see a newsroom having a slow blog on “Living with Pets in Orlando” — and only updating the page when there is something new to talk about.

If you look at the strategy of Flipboard,  this is clearly the direction that company is headed in — its aggregator will have magazines on just about any topic imaginable.

2.) Personalization – Having content and having it organized isn’t enough, because discovery still becomes difficult when you can’t place every single topic on a navigation bar. Instead, local news and information websites should focus on personalizing their experience to individual users. This also has long been talked about and tested. There are two types of personalization: one is where the user selects topics they are interested in and their feed or homepage is updated based on those topics. The other is where the site analyzes the type of content the user is reading and continually learns based on that (with some possibility for the user to manually adjust their settings). Some sites have attempted to do this but very few have made this a priority.

It will be key for local sites to not just think of hyperlocal as “more local than a newspaper,” but instead as “local and relevant.” Sometimes that means a user’s neighborhood — but other times it also means the topics and passions they are interested in.

MattSokoloffMatt Sokoloff is a 2012-2013 Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow working on a project to help publishers market their membership and subscription products. His background is in building digital products for media organizations. Read more about his current work here and respond in the comments or to [email protected] or @MattSokoloff on Twitter.