HollyWorld

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Hyperlocal journalism: Too important to fail

Posted by Holly Edgell on February 10, 2013

Journalism types on Twitter were abuzz with the news last week: Everyblock is no more. The hyperlocal site had a short life: 2007-2013.

Everyblock

Launched in 2007 with a $1.1 million grant in the inaugural Knight News Challenge, Everyblock’s promise of data-driven coverage of neighborhood news was at the vanguard of hyperlocal. I can only imagine the optimism and sense of renewed journalistic purpose that founder Adrian Holovaty must have felt! And when MSNBC acquired Everyblock in 2009, Holovaty may have had the sense that he’d started something big, something that would shape the way consumers get news about their communities. MSNBC relaunched Everyblock in March 2011.

Holovaty’s words upon joining MSNBC:

“Over the past three years (EveryBlock’s post-acquisition period), msnbc.com has been a fantastic company to work for. With EveryBlock, it’s managed to do something very rare: not only keeping it alive post-acquisition (which the acquired company cannot take for granted), but achieving the delicate balance of providing guidance/resources and keeping their hands off. Most acquisitions fail, and Charlie Tillinghast and the msnbc.com folks have bent over backwards to avoid that with us. I can’t think of a better place for us to have ended up than msnbc.com.”

Here’s a snippet from Poynter.org’s Feb. 8 article on the demise of Everyblock:

“Adrian Holovaty left the company last August. At the time, he reflected upon major points of impact, including jumpstarting movements toward open data and custom maps, strengthening neighborhoods in the 16 cities it served and releasing source code that inspired other projects.”

Schiller: “A tough call”

Holovaty’s feel-good MSNBC interlude was short, as interludes are wont to be. Remember when NBC assumed full control on MSNBC in 2012? Turns out, Everyblock was not part of NBC’s strategy. Here’s what Vivian Schiller, senior vice president and chief digital officer of NBC News, said in a memo to staffers:

“As we continue to grow and evolve the NBC News Digital portfolio, we are focused on investing in content, products and platforms that play to our core strengths. The decision to shut down the site was difficult, but in the end, we didn’t see a strategic fit for EveryBlock within the portfolio.”

Schiller told Poynter.org (and Tweeted) the decision was “a tough call.”

Remember TBD?

It seemed revolutionary at the time. Even audacious! Newsonomics provided “10 Reasons to Watch TBD Launch” in August. 2010. Here’s point number two:

2) It’s multimedia out of the box. Newschannel 8 [cablecast] and WJLA (Channel 7) broadcast, both also owned by Allbritton, will abandon their current websites and all the station-produced content will be found on TBD — one website. “Hard news on TV, hard news on the web,” is the intention.

The marriage of WJLA-TV & the web was over in the blink of an eye. Its life span? About two years. In hindsight, perhaps TBD (“to be decided”) was an unfortunate moniker for the endeavor.

Our friends at Poynter.org came up with “Six Business Lessons from TBD’s early demise.”

All eyes on Patch & AOL

As the handful of readers of this blog know, I used to work for Patch. Joining the AOL hyperlocal startup in July 2010 for the St. Louis region, I was part of the nationwide team that scaled from about 80 sites that summer to more than 750 by year’s end.

Talk about audacious!

Patch employs more than 1,000 people in editorial, sales, programming and administrative positions around the country. Begun as a glimmer in the eye of AOL CEO Tim Armstrong in 2009, Patch now boasts more than 1,000 news and community websites around the country. Patch has been through so many changes, I’ve lost count.

By now, Patchers have gotten pretty used to scrutiny from fellow journalists, not to mention the rumors and misinformation about the company that continue to circulate. It’s still hard for me to get used to the sense that many observers and pundits are expecting Patch to fail, and have already written obituaries.

Too important to fail

Hyperlocal journalism provides news coverage from the front lines of our lives; down to the very streets, schools, local businesses, yard sales, police blotters, and city council meetings. The is the bread and butter of life!

You won’t find the latest zoning board meeting agenda in The New York Times or even your major metro daily, or see a profile of your town’s leading Girl Scout Cookie seller on CNN. The Huffington Post may not take much interest in the blogger on your block who organizes the local book club or a heated debate over new lights at a local golf course.

And when it comes the big stories? Hyperlocal news can be vital, often with reporters who live in or near the communities they cover.

I am not a business person. But I do get that the key to a thriving journalism product is money: advertising for most media outlets, underwriting and donations for public and community media. Crowd funding could be a viable option for some startups, at least as part of an overall financial picture.

I feel strongly that it takes time to grow anything; journalism is no different. People develop media consumption habits over time. Granted, adoption happens faster than ever, but we still need time to discover and decide we like something; more time to fold that something into our daily lives; and still more time to recommend it to others. And, while all this is happening, a startup has to be able to fail and recover, regroup and retool, and keep going. And, not for nothing: all the while keeping everyone in the loop, being as open as possible about why people are seeing the changes they’re seeing.

How much time?

As I learned while with Patch, our friends and neighbors are hungry for news and information where they live. They want to interact. They appreciate a hub for sharing and engaging around issues, events, and stories that mean something.

Financial backers, consumers, pundits, journalists: We all need to give hyperlocal time to succeed. I am not sure what the ideal amount of time is: Certainly not two years, and probably not six years.

The first company to make hyperlocal news make a profit with be richly rewarded, on many levels.

Me at the NABJ convention, San Diego (2010), just days after joining Patch.com

Me at the NABJ convention, San Diego (2010), just days after joining Patch.com

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3 Responses to “Hyperlocal journalism: Too important to fail”

  1. I now have almost four years of blissful freedom from journalism, but I still observe the many comings and goings of trends related to my former industry. Hyperlocal was Journalism Trend No. 235 back in 2007-2009ish. It joins social media (another emperor’s new clothes savior of the news industry), video (a must-do a few years ago and still around and somewhat necessary, but overdone early on), and so on. I watched TBD.com launch and go under, as I thought. I’m not a journalism sage by any means, or I’d still be in newspapers. I’m just a realistic news user.

    I think some journalists and news junkies are enthralled by the idea of hyperlocal sites. These sites are cool, information-packed and well-intentioned (plus, they give a bunch of otherwise unemployed or unemployable journalists cheap contract jobs!). But the daily-grind, workaday news consumer probably couldn’t care less.

    The public has become news-outlet complacent and, for more than 15 years, has expected a free product when they go to the web. That expectation is killing newspapers, and it’s slopping over to truly web-only sites with niche business models like hyperlocal.

    Many consumers don’t want to fork over money to avert the paywalls being set up by established print outlets (unless they’re the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, which have an established print niche that can transfer to the web). Many consumers get annoyed by the popup and imbedded ads that sorta-kinda pay the bills at other sites such as TV stations.

    As for hyperlocal content, I worked for a newspaper that had a meager hyperlocal presence, a crime map feature that scraped daily police stats, I thought it was cool and looked at it from time to time (mostly to make sure it was working properly), but the common consumer eventually gets to the point of, well, OK, yep, there was a burglary two blocks away from my house. Now what? It had/has a small following, but no mass appeal. (My urging of my employer to get a major local alarm company to sponsor the feature went unheeded… OK, maybe I was more of a sage than I thought!).

    I agree with you, Holly, on the funding. Crowd funding is really what public radio has been doing for decades. The problem is that money makes the world go ’round, and unless you turn these niche hyperlocal sites (and perhaps even the local newspaper eventually) into a nonprofit business model like NPR or your local public radio station, supported by memberships or grants or both, you’re never going to see these take off and survive.

    • Hi Jeff -

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply! Call me cock-eyed optimist, but I think hyperlocal (or whatever we’ll be calling it next) can work and should work. The formula must include great journalists who “get” community and engagement. They must have competitive salaries and benefits, and live in or near the communities they cover.

      I remain very proud of the hiring I did for Patch. Ten of the 13 journalists (ranging from early to mid and late career folks) I hired are still working for Patch in the St. Louis region and making a difference with news & information in communities that had no coverage before Patch came along (unless something sensational was going on).

      I hope someone, whether it’s Patch or not, can figure out a way to bring meaningful content (from news, opinion, and conversation to anything that helps communities live better) to small towns, hamlets, neighborhoods and the ‘burbs — and make money.

      Cheers! HE

  2. tom abate said

    I saw this post the LinkedIn SPJ group. I’ve been a hyperlocal editor in the San Francisco Bay Area for about 18 months. I think the web loves vertical markets but not geographic markets. If you want to reach left-handed Vegans the web lets you find that specialized audience anywhere in the world. But local audiences do not necessarily share many common interests. It is expensive to pay journalists to cater to each of the many, small local interests. Hyper local content will have to have to arise from conversations amongst audience members. That is not so much a technology issue (the web allows for crowd sourcing) as it is a matter of habit and expectation. People produce content for Facebook. Will they produce it for their neighbors on a hyperlocal platform? That is the question as I see it.

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