I think every medium and metro-sized newspaper has had this conversation in the past few years:
Editor #1: People aren’t going to our website to read state and national stories. It’s all the fault of that darn CNN and such.
Editor #2: Well, maybe so, but we’ve still got Community X. They don’t do news there.
Editor #1: Maybe we’ll build a whole website just based on news from Community X! It’ll be awesome! Yeah, we’ll get, what do they call it?
Editor #2: Hyperlocal.
Editor #1: Right.
And so the hyperlocal news sites were born across the country. Some featured original reporting by staff, others were built on the work of citizen journalists. Some have already failed as others have taken on a life of their own.
When the Washington Post – the giant of the newspaper web world – decided to create a “hyperlocal” site based on Loudon County, Va., it was a big deal. Of course, their idea of hyperlocal was a group of loosely-connected communities instead of the communities themselves – but they’re the WaPo, if they want to call it hyperlocal, they can. Two years later, the WaPo announces its closure of LoudounExtra. Sure, the post says, they’ll still COVER the area, but it won’t have its own website anymore.
About a year ago, the Wall Street Journal saw this coming, charging that the WaPo didn’t understand what it meant to be hyperlocal in the first place. I’m inclined to agree. What I see from a lot of big news outlets is a page collecting their stories on the area and little more – that isn’t hyperlocal coverage – it’s a hyperlocal aggregate feed.
What makes a good hyperlocal site isn’t just collecting a bunch of stuff about that area and throwing it up on a web page – it’s about understanding the community on a ground level. It helps to live there, but merely getting out there and getting to know people is a start. From what the WSJ post said, the staff at LoudonExtra wasn’t very invested in the area:
To penetrate those communities requires a more dedicated effort than the LoudounExtra.com team was putting forth. [The manager of the project] acknowledged he spent too much time talking to other newspaper publishers about the hyperlocal strategy and too little time introducing his team and the site to Loudoun County.
Whether that is ultimately why the site didn’t get enough traction to remain independent is a leap I won’t take – but it certainly would make sense. The WaPo, while it does serve a local audience in addition to its wide national base, may not be the experts at knowing what’s going on in Middleburg, Va. Who does? People on the ground in Middleburg, that’s who.
The best local-local writers are invested at a micro level. For instance, Mission Local, a neighborhood news site created through a hyperlocal news project out of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Their site has news important to those living in the area – stories of all sorts, a police blotter, maps. If you check out their About page, you see that the publication is based in the Mission District and many of the writers are residents there.
Another great example, the West Seattle Blog, is a husband-and-wife team focused on a very specific part of a larger city in which they live. I had the opportunity to meet them and hear about their operation when I was a fellow at the Knight Digital Media Center in March. They both have backgrounds in journalism and took that expertise to cover their own neighborhood. As a result – they regularly publish what’s going on before their local metro.
Their crime page keeps a running tally from scanners and crime reports from residents. They have community-level announcements that come in from submissions. In addition to their own writing and reporting, they also have a selection of news and opinion from other bloggers in their area. All in all, they have a lot of content – all local (or hyperlocal!).
Even if there isn’t a person physically on the ground in the neighborhood, it takes knowing what people want to see from their area and how specific they may want it to be. “Drilled down” news can be done at a larger level – and it has value, if this week’s purchase of “microlocal” network EveryBlock by MSNBC is any indication.
As Paid Content said about the sale, EveryBlock had more value than LoudonExtra simply because of its focus on microcosms of communities – not just clumping a whole county together and calling it a community. The Dupont Circle page in EveryBlock is a great example. It has crime report maps, police calls, blog posts and more from a very specific area – pretty useful stuff if you live there – and most of it available from public information.
So the moral of the story is – don’t judge the future of “hyperlocal” news from the WaPo’s failed experiment. There’s gold in them there hills – but we have to actually work at making it accessible and useful.
* Eds Note: For the sake of disclosure, my current paper has a couple incarnations of these products. Cincinnati.Com has more than 100 community-level aggregate sites, including a few with their own discussion forums (and all featuring some pretty nifty maps if you ever want to check them out).