September 16, 2014

How Your Hyperlocal Site is Better Off than the NY Times

Believe it or not, if you run a hyperlocal website, you are, in some ways, better-positioned than companies like The NY Times.

The Times announced today it is erecting a paywall that will require frequent viewers of their site to shell out money for unlimited access. Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing executes a nimble takedown of the whole idea today.  One point jumped out at me:

Yes, I was going to hate this paywall no matter what the NYT did. News is a commodity: as a prolific linker, I have lots of choice about where I link to my news and the site that make my readers shout at me about a nondeterministic paywall that unpredictably swats them away isn’t going to get those links. Leave out the hard news and you’ve got opinion, and there’s no shortage of free opinion online. Some of it is pretty good (and some of what the Times publishes as opinion is pretty bad).   (Emphasis mine.)

The editors at the Times would squawk about that point, but Doctorow is right. No matter how good The NY Times is, for most of its content, there are plenty of other places to go. And even for enterprise pieces, the very popularity of the Times ensures that facts it reports will soon spread everywhere.

Compare that with your hyperlocal site. The whole point of hyperlocal, done right, is that you’re covering stuff people can’t get anywhere else. Or you’re covering it better, in creative ways. You’ve carved out a niche that delivers exclusive value to readers. And if you haven’t, you need to think about how you can tweak your coverage to do it.

My own hyperlocal sports site is a case in point. The local newspaper covers high school sports, but it comes out weekly, and it has limited space. Nobody else is offering daily (sometimes-live) coverage of almost every sporting event in town. If people want it, they know there’s just one place to find it.

By building that exclusivity of coverage, you make yourself valuable to readers first. Then to advertisers. You become a part of the community that people rely on, and your product is just about as far from a commodity as it can be. Yes, it’s a much smaller scale than The NY Times, but your content is probably more valuable to your readers than the TImes’ content is to 90% of its subscribers.

“Neighborhood Blog or Website” Is a Huge Local News Source in London

The Guardian’s Social Enterprise Network has published an article about how “social entrepreneurs” can use hyperlocal sites to spread their reach.  The most fascinating tidbit was this nugget about where people in London get their news:

While 7% said “television” and 11% said “local newspaper”, 63% said “neighbourhood blog or website”.

The survey consisted of Web users only, but that’s still a pretty high number for hyperlocal sites, in comparison to traditional media. The hyperlocal space seems to be far more developed in the UK than in the US, but I think the lopsided popularity of hyperlocal sites as a news source is a sign of where we’re headed as journalists and media business types figure it out.

Main Street Connect Takes a Slower Approach to National Hyperlocal

The dream of building a national network of hyperlocal websites is still alive and well. Main Street Connect is hoping to take on AOL’s Patch, and according to Ellie Behling, they’re taking a more slow-and-steady approach to growth:

Main Street’s hyperlocal model, Tucker explained, is focused first on building profitability in one group (or “pod”) of 10 sites in Connecticut’s Fairfield County (e.g. TheDailyNorwalk.com). He said they’re on track to be profitable in 12 months, enabling them to raise a second round of funding.

This makes more sense to me than Patch’s fast expansion, but I’m still not convinced any national network of hyperlocal sites will pan out financially. The value of hyperlocal is not just in the news coverage, but in the relationship a hyperlocal journalist has with local business owners. A regional sales rep can never emulate that relationship, and without it, I don’t think most hyperlocal websites can turn a profit.

What do you think? Are Patch or Main Street Connect viable options financially? Or does the sales staff have to be as hyperlocal as the journalist?

The Psychology of Bloggers vs. Journalists: The Flip Side

Jay Rosen has a long and thoughtful post about what drives the ongoing rivalry between “bloggers” and “journalists.”   He points to five sources of stress on journalists, driven by the rise of blogging:

One: A collapsing economic model, as print and broadcast dollars are exchanged for digital dimes.

Two: New competition (the loss of monopoly) as a disruptive technology, the Internet, does its thing.

Three. A shift in power. The tools of the modern media have been distributed to the people formerly known as the audience.

Four: A new pattern of information flow, in which “stuff” moves horizontally, peer to peer, as effectively as it moves vertically, from producer to consumer. Audience atomization overcome, I call it.

Five. The erosion of trust (which started a long time ago but accelerated after 2002) and the loss of authority.

From my time in a newsroom, this list rings true. All the stuff  above is stressing out the journalists I worked with, whether they fully realize it or not.

But what’s stressful for traditional journalists is liberating for bloggers who are doing journalism themselves. And that outlook is what motivates a lot of the bloggers with hyperlocal news sites.

Here’s the flip side of Rosen’s list, seen from a blogging journalist’s perspective:

  • One: The collapse of the traditional advertising model frees up money for blogging journalists, many of whom have other jobs, and who started their sites as a hobby.  Digital dimes don’t feed the family, but they can help blogging journalists buy a few extra things they couldn’t have afforded otherwise.
  • Two: Competition? What competition? Blogging journalists have nothing to lose, so they’re usually ready to cooperate at every turn. Being open to cooperation, instead of protective of an existing business, leads to innovation in coverage, and a better product.
  • Three: As beneficiaries of the media power shift, blogging journalists don’t often think in terms of “us” and “the audience.” For many hyperlocal sites, for example, the concept of audience participation is baked into the coverage from the beginning. Besides, when you’re a 1-person operation, accepting help from others is not really optional.
  • Four: The peer-to-peer spread of information is great for blogging journalists, partly because audiences have shifted their expectations about what they’re reading in the news. Starting with the rise of 24/7 coverage, readers have begun to realize that real-time journalism can lead to some speculation — and they’re okay with that, as long as the speculation is clearly labeled. Blogging journalists are often more willing to post a piece of the story, letting readers in on the coverage process as it happens.
  • Five: Trust is much easier to build as a person than as an institution. And this is where blogging journalists shine.  Hyperlocal bloggers are part of the community. The most successful ones don’t remain detached, but let their personalities seep into the news coverage. People respond to that — and earning the trust of a community is invigorating. That trust alone is enough to keep many blogging journalists motivated.

The stresses of hyperlocal bloggers are entirely different from those of traditional journalists. For the most part, they’re self-imposed: “I need to post more often,” or “I could be making more sales calls on clients.”

For traditional journalists, the stresses are institutional–built into the nature of their jobs and the businesses they work for. That’s why the rivalry between “journalists” and “bloggers” will continue to exist, even after most of the other distinctions between the two have broken down.

Is Hyperlocal Media Really “Seriously Challenged” Financially?

Another Negative Nancy about hyperlocal journalism. This time it’s analyst Claire Enders, who says hyperlocal funding is “seriously challenged,” in remarks reported at Journalism.co.uk:

Speaking at a Westminster Media Forum event on local media, the founder and chief executive of Enders Analysis said hyperlocal websites could learn from the model succesfully used in community radio, where hundreds of volunteers give up their time because they “care a lot about their communities”.

I have a couple of issues with this analysis. First, what does Enders even mean when she says “seriously challenged?” This is a key question, because “seriously challenged” to one entity might be “well-funded” to another. For example, if a newspaper or radio station makes $30,000 on a hyperlocal venture, it probably considers that funding “seriously challenged.” If I make $30,000 on my 1-man media outlet in the Midwestern US, that’s a pretty good start.

The trouble with analyzing hyperlocal news sites financially is that the baseline for success is usually set as if the sites are traditional media operations. They’re not — or at least they don’t have to be, if they’re started by an entrepreneurial journalist. There’s plenty of local funding out there to turn a hyperlocal media outlet into a business. You just have to work hard and be creative to find it. Engaging the community — both readers and businesses — is the first step in doing that.