The biggest challenge facing local news organizations today is figuring out how they can gather more and produce less. That is, how can they help other people produce, so the news organizations have something worth gathering?
After trying one of everything in hyperlocal, I’ve come to believe that this will happen only by combining those various models — so people can join in however they want to — and by answering the questions: How much news will members of the community create and share? What do they need to do that? What motivates them? How can local news organizations enable and encourage them?
Hyperlocal will not, I firmly believe, happen at one site. It will work only via networks: content, commercial, social. It will work by gathering, not producing.
But I still don’t know whether it will work. We need to do a lot of development and experimentation.
That’s why I’m sad to see the long-time-coming closing of Backfence — not just for the founders, who are smart people and friends, but because we’ll now hear hand-wringing about hyperlocal, just as we did when Dan Gillmor folded his local efforts. There were particular reasons behind the fate of each. Paul Farhi acknowledged that in this roundup of the state of hyperlocal efforts.
But Farhi, as most do, just talked about the fate of local sites. I think we need to look at local networks. No one can do it all. Newspapers can’t afford to cover everything. They never could but now they can afford to cover even less. TV and radio stations are covering next to nothing themselves; they have no idea how to get very local. New local ventures, as Backfence proves and Fahri points out, are finding it tough to do it themselves. Individual bloggers don’t pretend to do it all and need help to get their stuff found and get revenue. And today there just isn’t enough stuff from all these players together to add up to a critical mass of coverage for almost every town and neighborhood in the country. We need more but we don’t yet know how to get it. I believe we can figure this out. But we have to try.
That, to me, is the state of hyperlocal. The work has barely begun.
I think we need a combination of platforms. Everything will not happen in one place; that is why, in my view, both newspaper local sites and independent, stand-alone ventures like Backfence haven’t worked. That is why lone bloggers have trouble making a business of it. They have to work together. They have to become networks that organize, enable, and monetize.
Newspapers will produce journalism, I hope. Individual bloggers will produce reporting, I hope. And people who are doing neither will want to contribute what they know to this pool of information without having to have their own sites. So we will need a combination of models and platforms: Newspapers will have local sites. Local bloggers will do their own thing. There is a need for group sites like Backfence or GoSkokie, which helped inspire it, where people can contribute. There is a need to organize all this; I hope Outside.in can do that (disclosure: I’m an adviser). There is a need to support all this financially; that is where newspapers can play a crucial role, setting up ad networks and infrastructure. And then we still need to see what will motivate people to contribute what they know: money, ego, influence, what? And we need to see what help people need: technology, attention, training, support.
But nobody can do it alone. That is the real lesson of hyperlocal thus far.
I hope we don’t get discouraged when some efforts die. (And I hope we discuss this and commit to new experiments at our meeting at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism on networked journalism as part of my News Innovation Project in early October.)