Another hyperlocal venture is struggling, and each time this happens, I fear hyperlocal gets more cooties. But I refuse to give up hope because there’s a reason for each fall, there’s much still to do, and it’s still early.
The latest: Carll Tucker’s Daily Voice (née Main Street Connect) closed 11 of its sites, lost its CEO and other executives, shut some offices, and fired a bunch of people to cut its burn from $500k to $150k per month, according to Street Fight.
In hyperlocaland, Tucker was known to be particularly cocksure, saying he had the secret and — in the surest sign of hubris — raising large amounts from investors. Some smirk at his fall. But if he can now survive, then I’ll celebrate.
Tucker’s mistake, like Patch’s, I believe, was in thinking too big too fast. Before they nailed the business and knew what worked, they multiplied the model and thus the mistakes, which only threw accelerant on their burns. Perhaps they also thought too big. I’m not sure hyperlocal can be big — that it can scale, in the argot and desire of investors. More on that in a minute.
But first, in other cootie news: Patch recently cut staff and I’ll argue as I long have that they are creating closed sites when they should be building open (and more efficient) networks. NBC* closed Everyblock, though I was never sure why it fit there. Village Soup died, and I would still like to know more about its specifics. TBD was murdered before it ever had a chance to live thanks to parental politics. Add these to earlier cootied corpses: The Chicago News Cooperative had neither a business model nor cash from donors. Bayosphere failed sometime ago and I think its founder Dan Gillmor would acknowledge a lack of a business model. It was sold to Backfence, and its founder, Mark Potts, has very generously shared his lessons learned. There’s a reason behind each one of these.
At the same time, there are hyperlocal sites that are proving to be sustainable. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much the same list we’ve had for sometime: Baristanet, West Seattle Blog, NJ’s TheAlternativePress, Red Bank Green…. We analyzed these blogs a few years ago at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY, and found local blogs that then were able to bring in upwards of $250k in ad and other revenue.
There’s something that ties the survivors together:
1. They are small.
2. They are the products of a great deal of hard work by very dedicated journalists/publishers.
3. They are very much a part of their communities (which makes it difficult to parachute in any kid just out of J-school, I’m afraid).
Hyperlocal is going to be built this way, a town or city neighborhood at a time, I think. Are there enough dedicated journalists willing to do this hard work and to risk and sacrifice better paying alternatives (read: PR or flipping burgers, for that matter) and to learn how to do culturally distasteful things for journalists like sell ads and do business? In New Jersey alone, we have 565 towns and given this state, each is an opportunity ripe for corruption that needs to be covered. Even if we say that one hyperlocal site could cover three towns (some are small), that’s still more than 150 bloggers needed. I’d say we have a bit more than a dozen in the state now. Is it reasonable to think we could get 10+ times more? No. But I’d be ecstatic three three or four or fives times more.
I think we see a model for what’s possible in blog-rich Brooklyn, where there are scores of local blogs. CUNY runs The Local there, now solo, after The New York Times pulled out of its hyperlocal endeavors (another cootie). One of my entrepreneurial students is on the way to starting what I think will be a great service there (more bragging about him when he’s ready). It is possible. But they all need help.
This is why I worked with Montclair State and the Dodge Foundation (where — disclosure — I’m an advisor) to help start the NJ News Commons in New Jersey. My hope — OK, call it a dream — is that it and others (like NJ.com, which — disclosure — I helped start and where I’m now an advisor) can help make it feasible for an unemployed journalist — and we have lots of them — or a caring community member to start a site to serve a community bound by geography or interest. Among the things the Commons will do to help:
1. Aggregate, curate, promote, and distribute the best of the content created by independent members of the New Jersey news ecosystem. Debbie Galant has started a content sharing network enabled by Repost.US.
2. Train local publishers in the skills they need: new media, journalism, and especially business. That’s just beginning.
3. Coordinate collaborative projects so the independent members of the ecosystem can do together more than any one can do apart. That is beginning and I think it will grow with coverage of Hurricane Sandy recovery, which will be helped along with grants coordinated by Dodge and the NJ Community Foundation.
4. Provide services, which we hope may include everything from health and libel insurance to technology platforms to make it easier for sites to start with less effort and risk.
All that is well and good but it doesn’t address the key question, the only question of hyperlocal: revenue. This is where commercial endeavors must enter. In our modeling at CUNY, we saw the need for this work in revenue:
1. Better ad sales by hyperlocal sites serving merchants with more than just banners but also helping them with their digital presences. At CUNY, we looked at the digital lives of 1,000 merchants in a city neighborhood and a suburban town and saw great opportunity to help them. I don’t expect every hyperlocal publisher to innovate this. They need help. But I see big business opportunity here for entrepreneurs (or Patch).
2. Ad networks that aggregate audience from independent sites so they can for the first time get a piece of revenue from larger advertisers. This is likely something that needs to be done by a larger local media company (e.g., a newspaper or broadcast outlet).
3. Explore new revenue opportunities, such as events and newsletters. We are sharing lessons from sites that have found these to be surprisingly successful.
Still, this is hard work. It’s guerrilla warfare, a hill at a time. And that gets us back to the question of scale and one more need: funding. Hyperlocal ventures are caught in a terrible chicken-egg omelette. Funders will back ventures only if they scale, if they’re bigger than one town. Promising scale is how Daily Voice, Patch, Backfence, Everyblock, and other local ventures got funding. Striving for scale is what made them each perhaps grow too far too fast. Maybe the truth is that hyperlocal won’t scale. One entity won’t own thousands of towns and their sites because the successful site is very much a part of the community. OK, but each of those small ventures still needs funding to at least cover loses until an audience and a set of advertisers can be served. Where will that money come from? Journalists aren’t rich — especially now — and don’t have rich friends and family.
The more we can create the hyperlocal-site-in-a-box for would-be local entrepreneurs, the better — giving them membership in larger revenue networks, methodology, technology, and services like insurance. That will lessen the start-up cost and the risk. But they’ll still likely need some money to get them started.
This is where I believe that local patrons, local media companies, and especially foundations should be putting their resources: not into supporting journalistic charities or into building yet more gee-whiz cool tools but into helping to start sustainable journalistic enterprises with grants or convertible loans. Some will be gifts. Some will be investments — not big, scalable, exit-strategy, Silicon-Valley, technology platform investments but investments the size of a bakery. We need more bakeries for news.
When it comes to the information needs of communities, I’m less concerned about national coverage — Washington will always be overpopulated by scribes and cable will overcover disasters — and more concerned about local, especially the very local. That is where I hope we turn our attention. I also hope we do not get discouraged by the occasional cooties.
* Note: I changed the reference to Everyblock from MSNBC to NBC at the suggestion of Everyblock founder Adrian Holovaty.