Is hyperlocal all hype?

Hyperlocal news is going hyper. Monday’s news that has raised $7m from CNN is the tip of an increasingly large iceberg, as detailed by

CNN invests in … MSNBC buys … the New York Times has launched its hyperlocal effort called “The Local” … AOL has its hyperlocal project called Patch … the Huffington Post is getting into hyperlocal blogging … the Seattle Times is collaborating with hyperlocal blogs … Fisher launched 43 hyperlocal sites in Seattle and is expanding that model in other areas … the Guardian (UK) is starting a hyperlocal news network … other UK newspapers are also going hyperlocal … and so on and so forth.

So what’s happening here? And does it all add up?

The “need” for hyperlocal news, and the enticing gap
The existence of hyperlocal news is morally vital. The accelerating decline of local newspapers leaves a dangerous void in its wake – a void in which, as Clay Shirky has predicted, “casual endemic corruption” flourishes in the absence of a fierce journalistic watchdog. Thus there is a “need” for hyperlocal news. That need, it is believed, will be served by a new breed of ‘citizen journalists’ blogging from their bedrooms.

But the void left by the decline of local newspapers is not only a moral one, it is a financial one. Big media organisations are noticing this, and see the perfect opportunity to come to the rescue of small communities bereft of a local watchdog, while simultaneously expanding into new revenue markets and audience streams. In an ideal world, large news organisations would be able to corral thousands of local bloggers and sources into their very big tent: an army of “correspondents” manning incremental parts of a gargantuan news organism.

The whole thing, in principle, makes a lot of sense. As a Techdirt piece noted back in March:

Just as a few dozen professionals at Britannica couldn’t produce an encyclopaedia that was anywhere near as comprehensive as the amateur-driven Wikipedia, so a few thousand newspaper reporters can’t possibly to cover the news as thoroughly as millions of Internet-empowered individuals can….any news gathering strategy that doesn’t incorporate the contributions of amateurs is going to be left in the dust by those that do.

Quite. And if they manage to monetize their thousands of hyperlocal tributaries, then everybody wins. In this new hyperlocal world of long-tail journalism, the news organisations stand to make, as John Battelle wrote about Google, ”a billion dollars, one nickel at a time”.

Thus the current land-grab. If a news organisations move too slowly, all the local goodies will already be snapped up.

But where’s the money?
There’s an elephant in the hyperlocal room: dosh. Newsrooms across the world are being trimmed, international bureaus are being shuttered, and supplements are being cut. It seems a strange time to undergo a multi-faceted expansion into the provincial nooks of the market. Current (failing) advertising models rely on wooing advertisers with audiences. Local news has a local (read: small) audience. The possible solution – establishing a model in which local businesses advertise to local news sites – will be a mighty expensive and mighty tricky.

Until a brand new model arises, monetizing hyperlocal news faces an immovable truism…advertisers rely on eyeballs. Back in April, a New York Times piece outlined the problem:

[T]he number of readers for each neighborhood-focused news page is inherently small. “When you slice further and further down, you get smaller and smaller audiences,” said Greg Sterling, an analyst who has followed the hyperlocal market for a decade. “Advertisers want that kind of targeting, but they also want to reach more people, so there’s a paradox.”

And yet millions of dollars are being thrown into the paradox. Hyperlocal has been talked about for years, but a eureka moment still hasn’t materialised. An illuminating article in Fast Company questions whether anyone can actually tap the $100 billion potential of hyperlocal news…suggesting that hyperlocal could just be, well, hype:

The future of hyperlocal – according to the people who have studied, lived, and championed it – seems to be in convincing others that hyperlocal is the future. “Someday soon, somebody will make [hyperlocal] work and turn it into a successful business,” wrote hyperlocal pioneer Mark Potts after his company Backfence folded in 2007. “If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that the power and potential of local communities still is waiting to be tapped.” And so it remains.

While the spate of recent acquisitions might suggest otherwise, the ‘hyperlocal moment’ still hasn’t happened. Investing in hyperlocal during an industry crisis, in the hope that the eureka moment comes sooner rather than later, seems incredibly risky.

News orgs as hijackers, not shining knights
It may also be wholly inappropriate. In the same speech in which Clay Shirky predicted a coming age of “casual, endemic corruption”, he also predicted a calm after the storm; a media future in which a thousand flowers bloomed to replace newspapers. If news organisations attempt to landscape these flowers for their own means, they could risk ruining the garden.

Hyperlocal news ventures might – and hopefully will – move into the spaces vacated by local newspapers, but large news organisations aren’t necessarily the right catalysts for this movement – just because there is a gap, it doesn’t mean it’s theirs to fill. If they try too hard to jump on the bandwagon, they could derail an organic growth fuelled by necessity, not profit or brand equity.

They also risk making hyperlocal crap. If a hyperlocal blog is going to make any money (for its authors and its owners) the immediate solution is to be prolific, and there are only so many local stories to write about. A worst-case scenario could see a hyperlocal blog ruining itself; churning out ‘man bites dog’ rubbish to meet a quota set by the parent news organisation.

Quality control
On the other hand, it could work the other way round, and the hyperlocal sites could taint the news organisations above them. One of the few field in which the mainstream media still have a competitive advantage is class. How could it possibly monitor such a huge array of franchised hyperlocal sites? The Fast Company article also quizzed Jim Schachter, editor of digital initiatives at the New York Times, about their move into the hyperlocal sphere:

A New York Times-branded blogging platform would also come with some unsettled issues for the Gray Lady. Right now, every word that appears on the Local has a Times editor reviewing it. Would the newspaper oversee franchised content delivered under its name in the same way? “It’s safe to say that we would exercise whatever level of oversight was required to protect the standing of our news brand,” Schachter says. Would that even be feasible? “You are ahead of where we are,” he admits.

Hmmm. Not exactly a masterplan.

Right now, the conjunction of macro and micro news seems a little bit like an arranged marriage: the parents approve, but the newlyweds probably aren’t meant for each other.  But I hope I’m wrong.

What matters most is the health of local news, not its potential as a ripe, reimagined market place. Indeed, perhaps the news organisations should stick to the task at hand – the delivery of quality journalism. If they try to create a system in which an army of newsgatherers do their work for them, or try subdividing the task too much, things could get messy. Just ask Mickey.

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Related posts:
Coming soon: A journalistic ‘state of nature’
Why membership is an old media solution to a new media problem
Why the Internet Manifesto is annoying

15 responses to “Is hyperlocal all hype?

  1. No, you are not wrong. We are seeing attempts at this in our area. Those of us who are truly among the “thousand flowers” have been railing against it and yet you have put it much more eloquently, probably because you’re not personally affected (potentially) like some of us!

    I am rather radical about it. I see ***no place*** for Big Media to come in and ruin this. I worked for corporate media for more than a quarter-century and it took a while for things to go to hell – I am furious that they are trying to screw up the concept of neighborhood-based, neighborhood-generated news before it ever gets going.

    And as you also identify, it is a headscratcher: While they are cutting jobs in their regional-news operations, they are devoting a couple of token people to try to do a few token entries a day for microsites. Huh?

    Luckily so far the local businesses who have been dealing with locally based independent sites are largely not fooled – they do indeed need eyeballs and where there is a bonafide independent operation like ours, they generally have a good share of them. But in the places where a flower had yet to bloom, the corporate media “hey! we’re hyperlocal!” attempts at synthetically replicating this are just pushing up something that looks like an ugly dandelion and may poison the ground all around, keeping that flower from ever showing up.

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  3. Superb post Benji.
    There seem to me to be two key challenges in a central organisation creating a hyper-local platform.
    1. A genuine grass roots effort is far more likely to find a following within a local community than a big brand sponsored effort.
    2. Local news relies on local advertisers. Most start-ups’ online models rely on adwords style advertising sale (i.e. they’ll come to us to advertise) and as someone who has both run a small local business and who is currently running a travel start-up (that tries to give small local travel operators a platform), I simply don’t believe small businesses will respond. They won’t go online and subscribe to online services. Sure the early adopters will, but most respond only to face to face sales. There was a reason yellow pages used to send a salesperson around to every single small business in the land to renew subscriptions.

  4. “The possible solution – establishing a model in which local businesses advertise to local news sites – will be mighty expensive and mighty tricky.” – I think might disagree with that, as would I, sitting here looking at £60/mth coming from advertisers on The Lichfield Blog knowing it could do so much more.

    “Current (failing) advertising models rely on wooing advertisers with audiences” – Because advertising doesn’t work, or because the current implementations aren’t smart enough? If I have over 1,000 unique page views on Chasetown FC articles it make sense that their sponsor might like to advertise to those 1,000 impressions. That’s a very basic example, but I don’t see many hyperlocals getting clever like that so far (we’re not! ..yet).

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  11. Unbelievable article. One thought about eyes: I know a Patch editor from an unnamed town. They not only met their initial goals with viewers, etc… but did it by 10 times. The unique visitors to that edition of the Patch is actually larger than the town population. That’s interesting… because it means people who have left the town still find the news relevant, or nearby communities that pick up on it as well. I also note the community itself is feverish on the site…. it isn’t like a comment section of a major paper, it’s more intimate and civil because these people either know one another, or are aware that it could be someone living down the street from them…. in that real discourse has happened. I find it interesting.

    Your blog is epic. It reminds me of when I had time and energy to put stuff together… I haven’t written forever.

  12. Many hyperlocal approaches are like pouring yesterday’s wine in new bottles. Research on information services suggests that hyperlocal as a goal in and of itself is destined to fail. Hyperlocal works when you have an healthy vertical (such as sports), and then use hyperlocal to identify promising regions, then deliver more in-depth coverage in that niche.

    That’s why ESPN is doing so well: it used server log files to suggest the most promising markets, which shaped (but did not dictate) its go-to-market strategy for Dallas, New York and Boston, among others. This plan includes finding popular local athletes and then giving them an exit strategy for their pro career; i.e. going from the gridiron to podcasts, and for some, airtime on the mothership cable channel. The ESPN approach has been used successfully by others, ranging from to the original Sporting News business plan.

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