Discovering Common Ground Among ‘Indie’ and Corporate Hyperlocal Sites

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Handshake Black White Woodcut CircleThe digital Grand Canyon that has divided independent and corporate hyperlocal news sites is not looking so immense lately. The “indies” and the corporates are still kicking up a lot of dust in their community-by-community competition. But these rivals are changing their operations and strategies in ways that make them look more alike than different.

Indies still invoke their “local-doesn’t-scale” mantra. But some of them are adopting their own kind of scale to achieve the efficiencies and reach that can come with multiple sites under one corporate structure. There are Scott Brodbeck with his three ARLnow sites in metro Washington, Liena Zagare with her four sites in Brooklyn, and Kelly Gilfillan and Susan Leathers with their three sites in suburban Nashville among them.

Indies are also exploiting the potential of networks — the kind that preserve their members’ “local-local” identity while giving them access to additional editorial content, enhancing their market reach and providing them with training and other resources to improve their publishing skills. A prominent example is the NJ News Commons set up by Montclair State University’s School of Communication and Media, under the leadership of Merrill Brown and Debra Galant, who co-authored the original “Local doesn’t scale” slogan.

On the corporate side, Patch, is down-shifting, both in image and structure. New owner Charles Hale says the network he bought from Aol is now functioning in “lean, entrepreneurial mode.” He’s keeping all 900 sites, but exploring how to really boost the sites in Patch’s strongest markets. Under plans still taking shape, some Patch editors will function as publishers and share in what their sites earn. These editors will function much like their competing indie counterparts.

Looking at the indies’ strategy, I don’t think it’s sheer coincidence that the first executive director of the Local Independent Online News (LION) publishers association, Beth Lawton, comes from Patch, where she was an editorial manager of a dozen Northern Virgina sites, among the network’s strongest. On her Linked in page, Lawton said she “worked closely with [the Patch] marketing and advertising team to promote and grow all sites in the D.C. metro area, including participating in budget and strategy meetings on organizational structure, engagement and sell-able content initiatives.” Surely Lawton will be using what she learned at Patch to help LION’s editors/publishers succeed.

A number of ex-Patch journalists who were terminated by previous network owner Aol during the transition to new owner Hale Global are also showing strong interest in starting their own independent community news sites. I’m sure their work toward Patch’s mission — even when the network began spinning out of control under Aol — will inform what they build from scratch.

Meanwhile, programmatic advertising is pressuring the indies to aggregate their small-but-engaged user bases into audiences big enough to give the diverse segments a critical mass. Programmatic wants corporate networks to tease engagement out of its big numbers.

Indie and corporate sites that heed these pressures will become more alike. At what point will this convergence suggest that somebody start talking about the elephant in the room: Why have sites in major markets that are so similar both operationally and in strategy competing against each other for what is still a small share of local digital dollars? Wouldn’t it make sense for these rivals to figure out how to merge their strengths? Wouldn’t the outcome make winners of everybody, including audiences?

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that will rate communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability. He will present the site’s new demo on Charleston, S.C., at the DIG SOUTH 2014 interactive festival in Charleston on April 9-13, 2014.