Hyperlocal cooties

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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ron.mwangaguhunga Ron Mwangaguhunga

    hyperlocal has to work. It is the perfect marketing strategy combined with local content. The execution is just off

  • http://www.thepomoblog.com Terry Heaton

    Sam Walton didn’t build 100 Walmarts at once.

    • http://twitter.com/BroadstreetAds Broadstreet

      But that’s the problem — 1 company with tens or hundreds of local sites probably doesn’t have the same shot at getting the same passionate, nitty-gritty coverage and small business recognition (ie, advertisers) that an individual site has.

      Patch is/was the Walmart of local journalism, and it never felt genuine.

      • loopeditrix

        We must agree. Would you rather experience McDonald’s or a cool local diner? We are fortunate to have better readership than the three surrounding Patches. (and make a mean tuna casserole) I believe that can also be said for many if not most, of the sites in the LION group with Patch/MainStConnect competitors.

    • http://howardowens.com Howard Owens

      Neither did Gannett, Scripps, Hearst, etc. No news chain started as a chain. In fact, the chain as we now know it didn’t really exist until well into the 20th century.

      • Lindsey

        So true- today’s society puts WAAAAYYY too much importance on the notion of Scalability- thanks dot.com people. Investors and venture capitalists haven driven what becomes successful in this country – and its all bio-pharma and techno- gizmos these days. invest in journalism? we have heard all these arguments before- Local journalism is important, but you must steal the ad dollars from your print competitors to get an income. We are trying the idea of partnering with print pubs that have incredibly bad web presences to give their existing ad sales folks something new to sell. We also design business websites as mentioned above. CaryCitizen- has been publishing news in Cary, NC (the Triangle area ) for 3-1/2 years and its still a work in progress.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jlpaluzzi Jenn Lord Paluzzi

    Great points that I totally agree with — as I start to rebuild the Massachusetts sites that were killed by The Daily Voice. Four years of work down the drain, now I’m going back to basics with GreaterGrafton.com. Again.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Rosenblum/550668792 Michael Rosenblum

    It isn’t the content or the size of the operation (nor the scale for that matter) but rather the revenue side. The whole notion of advertising and online don’t go together. Move from a focus on advertising to a focus on transactions and you can not only have a successful site, you can also save local retailers.

    • http://twitter.com/MPlenke Mark Plenke

      For those of us not up on the lingo, could you explain a bit about what you mean by “transactions”? Thanks.

    • http://www.arlnow.com/ ARLnow.com

      Wrong.

      Content is the most important part of the equation. If you produce great content, get 1 in 2 people in the community to read it, and spark great discussions online and off — advertisers will literally come to you and ask to advertise. All you need to do is give them good advertising options at reasonable prices and, boom, revenue. Granted, that easy-picking revenue will only get you so far, and if you need to pay someone other than yourself you’ll probably need to work harder on sales / offer other services/products.

      Our advertisers, for the record, are happy and have seen ROI with both online display advertising and sponsored content.

      If your content sucks, you can still sell ads if you’re a killer salesman with a convincing pitch — but it won’t be sustainable because the ROI won’t be there. You need the large audience, and the only way to get that in a media-saturated world is through engaging, useful, original content.

      Scott Brodbeck
      ARLnow.com

  • http://twitter.com/obrien Chris O’Brien

    I think the revenue side has to look past ads. This has always been a weak business model, and it’s getting weaker. Also, let me suggest you add (if it’s not there already) Oakland Local to your list of hyper local winners: http://oaklandlocal.com/ Susan Mernit has been running it for several years, and it only seems to be increasing its impact.

    • http://twitter.com/susanmernit susanmernit

      Thanks, Chris! We are working hard to be both sustainable and do great reporting an local service journalism–and train people to use media tools/

    • http://buzzmachine.com/ Jeff Jarvis

      RIght you are.

  • http://twitter.com/FinsUpDNC Darren Cohen

    People who want to follow and read hyper local news are going to be the same people who want to support local. It won’t be big corps that survive in this space, but community driven outlets that are read and supported by the local residents and business.

    • http://twitter.com/deanbetz Dean Betz

      I very much agree. It’s no accident that successful hyperlocal sites have been almost exclusively grass-roots and entrepreneurial. Media companies stand to gain so much from a thriving hyperlocal scene, but my experience tells me that they aren’t capable of fostering its growth. Ultimately, it will take strong academic and non-profit support, along with help from tech companies, that will help bring about a hyperlocal-in-a-box scenario to replace the inability of media companies to make this happen.

  • http://twitter.com/mterenzio Matt Terenzio

    Maybe it is working, just not in a format we recognize yet, and across many services, not one organization.

  • Jennifer Doyle

    I’m attempting to build a local winner with http://www.uptondaily.com today is day three of my news blog. Upton, MA had recently been picked up by the Daily Voice, the community had a couple of months of hyperlocal news then BAM, they closed. I wanted to keep the local daily news going…

  • http://twitter.com/stevebuttry Steve Buttry

    As a member of the TBDiaspora, I applaud your insight about the hyperlocal graveyard as well as the continuing potential for local news operations. The small operations are so plentiful now they have their own association: Local Online Independent News (LION) Publishers: http://www.lionpublishers.com/ The cooties will get their attention, as they should, but the growth in local is clear, too.

  • http://twitter.com/susanmernit susanmernit

    Jeff–Oakland Local is not anywhere near $250K in ad revenue, but as a hyperlocal non-profit we sell ads and sponsorships and seek funding for deep dive journalism, like our new police beat, helmed by former ReadWrite Web ME Abraham Hyatt. Flexibility and the ability to pivot is key–as is a lean start-up model of low overhead. Enjoyed the post!

  • http://twitter.com/MichelleRafter MichelleRafter

    Look at Living on the Cheap, http://livingonthecheap.com/, a loosely affiliated group of local frugal living blogs run by independent journalists. I’m not sure how many there are now, maybe 3 dozen? The editor/manager is a former Miami Herald staff writer/editor. Each runs his or her own site, but pays a franchise fee into the main page. I believe they also run their own ads as well as run ads across the entire network. Could be a model of a niche local that works.

  • Doug Conarroe

    Add to your list these hyperlocal products that have either stopped or downsized considerably: YourHub.com (about 1/10 of the size it was in 2007 in terms of markets and monthly uniques) News Garden (inactive from what I can tell), Outside.in (acquired by Patch).

    • Doug Conarroe

      And these (that got warm fuzzies from the trade press at one time or another): Bayosphere, YourMTB.com, LoudonForward.com, MadisonCommoms.com, HartsvilleToday

  • http://twitter.com/MartinLangeveld Martin Langeveld

    The dream of a national network of hyperlocals goes back even further than the examples you cite — back in 1996 at The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield MA) we worked with an upstate NY web developer operating as RegionNet.com, who created a not-bad template for us and several other newspapers, and was convinced that he could duplicate the model right across the country. Of course so did a bunch of other folks at the time, so it didn’t quite work out. You can still find that early Eagle site at the Wayback Machine. Though not really a news site, Microsoft’s Sidewalk.com failed for similar reasons, but not before giving newspapers a few worries.

    • http://buzzmachine.com/ Jeff Jarvis

      Right. I should have mentioned Sidewalk. Also Citysearch, which scared us when I was in the business.

  • turfgrrl

    The problem with hyperlocal news sites is that the news they should be providing have a tough time generating the eyeballs that make potential advertisers, or let’s call them what they should be called, local merchants, want to support. Few people will follow the local government budget meetings, and fewer still would head to the local pizza place just because they supported the site that covered that. So imho, there’s a mismatch with the product and what advertisers want, and btw, it’s not just hyperlocal sites that have this issue. Local newspapers in whatever format have this problem. So sponsored journalism seems like the revenue model. The New Haven Independent http://www.newhavenindependent.org has that model down pat.

    • http://howardowens.com Howard Owens

      Tough time generating eyeballs? Can’t sell advertising? Really? I must just be dreaming then.

      • turfgrrl

        You don’t think it’s hard to sell advertising on the local police blotter page? Or next to the school budget hearings?

        • http://howardowens.com Howard Owens

          Think is the wrong word. The correct word is know. And I know it’s not. Online ad sales is easy if you have the right product to sell.

  • http://thebreakingnewsnetwork.com/city-directory The Breaking News Network

    Not many have heard of our community service hyperlocal media network spanning over 400 cities because we don’t try to monetize at the local level. But curating the best media and blog feeds in each city is scalable, just like Debbie Galant’s content sharing in New Jersey http://njnewscommons.repost.us/. We’ve been doing this for four years.

    Two weeks ago, Journalism Accelerator reviewed our mission for creating and scaling a 400 city hyperlocal network, a kind of PBS of social media sourced news built for the public good: http://bit.ly/JATBNN

    • FLV Hosting

      Neat stuff !! 30a TV might have interest

  • David Dahl

    Here at the Boston Globe and Boston.com, we’re up to 100 Your Town sites and 15 Your Campus sites, using a mix of original stories, aggregated links from community-based blogs, our own photo galleries and links to Globe content to provide news to more than 100 communities in and around Boston. We’re getting a great response from local readers, providing people with news AND engaging them, and contributing greatly to the overall menu that we provide in the printed paper, online and via mobile. I agree with much of what has been said here and, yes, it is hard work, but a heck of a lot of fun. Check us out at Boston.com/yourtown

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  • http://www.berkeleyside.com/ lknobel

    I agree with your points, Jeff, but I wish you’d stop using the tired term hyperlocal. Most of the successful sites you mention (and Berkeleyside is another one) are covering decent sized towns or cities. When there was a local paper in these places, no one ever called them hyperlocal newspapers. We’re a local news site, pure and simple.

    If someone wants to cover Berkeley (or anywhere else) at a neighborhood or even block level — the conceit of Everyblock — then perhaps you can revive the term.

    Like most of the other people working in local independent, online news, we’re finding many rewards for our hard work, even if the monetary rewards are still modest. In addition to the three founders, Berkeleyside now has two employees and we’re about to hire a third. There’s plenty of revenue for a sustainable local business. There’s not enough revenue to appeal to a venture capitalist, but who cares about that?

    • http://buzzmachine.com/ Jeff Jarvis

      I so tire of arguments over nomenclature. There’s metro-wide. There’s town/neighborhood. But there’s nothing to say that’s the end game of geographic definition; people may define their own spheres and that will be hyperlocal. Whatever. It communicates.

  • http://www.facebook.com/DylanRSmith Dylan Smith

    Steve, thanks for your mention of LION Publishers.

    With nearly 100 members – and growing – LION proves that success in local news is possible. We believe that the future is a return to the roots of local news: experienced local reporters working for local news organizations that are run by local publishers.

    That word “local” gets repeated because it’s important. The top-down, distantly managed play doesn’t work; we’ve seen that fail over and over again. Just as newspapers were at their healthiest when they were run by families or local partnerships, online news sites are at their best when they have owners who are directly responsive to the needs of their communities.

    We’ve found that local small businesses respond to publishers who are just like them: local business owners who care about their communities, rather than national chains that want to extract as much profit as they can in the shortest possible time.

    Local publishers are investing in their neighborhoods, towns and cities. Our readers recognize that, and sponsors/advertisers respond to it as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=624475800 Robert Cox

    Jeff,

    PT Barnum is to have said “if you want to draw a crowd, pick a fight”.

    After 5 years working at a national level I came to realize that hyperlocal was the place I wanted to be, the place where what was then blogging could make a real difference.

    I started Talk of the Sound to cover New Rochelle, NY exclusively and we have been diligent in sticking to our knitting.

    We get about 60,000 uniques a month, about 125,000 page views. Later this month we will hit 2 million unique visitors.

    We make some money from advertising (local and networked) but make far more setting up web site and social media presence for local businesses and organizations, some of who then advertise as well (to drive traffic to the site we set up for them).

    I have a lot to say on this (as usual!) but let me just surface one issue that does not, in my opinion, get sufficient attention — the implication of speaking truth to power as a hyperlocal.

    If you start reporting on the back room real estate deals and the “friends and family” job placement programs, the public sector employees who get in legal trouble, and the graft, big and small, you will soon tread on a lot of toes. Those toes belong to people who license businesses, approve building permits, let public sector contracts and so on.

    It will not take long before local advertisers get the word, delivered gently or not, that they should not be supporting a hyperlocal site if they “know what’s good for them”.

    The readership of Talk of the Sound has grown to be one of the larger independent hyperlocals in our region because of our track record of telling the stories the powers that be do not want told. But that comes at a cost.

    Patch and Daily Voice have both operated in New Rochelle over the past 2-3 years. I doubt they ever offended anyone. They have served up a thin gruel of stories with very little original reporting. Mostly they give the official version of stories from the police, school district and City Hall. And they have few readers as a result and shy away from topics that might be controversial.

    There’s the rub. Do you want to serve your readers or your advertisers. I am not saying it is always the case (Susan Mernit/Oakland Local may be an exception) but I do believe this a critical part of the decision tree in launching and operating a hyperlocal site.

  • http://westseattleblog.com/ Patrick Sand

    Can somebody wake me when this discussion is over?

    • http://buzzmachine.com/ Jeff Jarvis

      Thank you for adding so much substance and intelligence to the conversation. I’m sure this was worth your effort as much as it is ours.

  • Marian Bennett

    Half Moon Bay CA – LOCAL news, part of the 400+ Breaking News Network. Pat Kitano is building a worthwhile organization. https://twitter.com/coastsidenews. Small community about 20 miles south of SF.

  • Susan Taylor Leathers

    Our company, BrentWord Communications LLC is in its 4th year. We launched with Brentwoodhomepage.com and in August of 2012, launched Franklinhomepage.com.In December, we launched a marketing arm, BrentWord Marketing. We have always looked at our company as a business, with credible, independent local news at its core. We’re not perfect, but we just hired our second full-time reporter, have four sales people, a content editor, a sports coordinator and office manager. We have a great group of freelancers and talented columnists reaching different demographic groups. It’s not always pretty, but we are surviving and growing and plotting our future. We beat The Tennessean on a daily basis. Just want to say that it can be done. It’s hard as hell, but it can be done.

  • http://blog.digidave.org/ digidave

    I would add Berkeleyside to the list of those that are surviving. It has been a few years now – and it shows no sign of stopping. They do good stuff.

    • http://www.berkeleyside.com/ lknobel

      Thanks, Dave. We don’t spend much time blowing our own trumpet so it’s nice that others do it for us.

      There are plenty of sites surviving and perhaps even thriving. There’s a decent business that can be built with a local news site. It’s just not an “investible space” in terms of the scale of returns that an outside investor would seek. So what?

  • barbara raab

    Jeff, is there anybody you know (of) over the age of 30 who is making a living working at/on any of these sites? Somebody who is a primary breadwinner, does not have another paycheck (i.e., as a professor), and can actually make ends meet or have the possibility of doing that not too far down the line? If not, then perhaps the fact is these are not viable businesses for the workers — people need “business models” too. Are even the most successful local blogs (the ones you cite here) providing that kind of income stream for anybody? If not, I fear these are not going to draw and/or keep SYP (smart young people) looking for a journalism career.

    • http://buzzmachine.com/ Jeff Jarvis

      Yes, I do.

      • http://howardowens.com Howard Owens

        I do, too. Some of us not only support ourselves and our spouses, but also employees.

      • http://www.berkeleyside.com/ lknobel

        Ditto. Berkeleyside is now paying three employees, as well as providing income for the three founders.

  • http://blog.tomevslin.com Tom Evslin

    Vtdigger.com is succeeding by filling a need for indepth statewide news in Vermont. It has foundation, donor, and ad support, Perhaps not hyperlocal in terms of geography but is in the sense that our statewide community is only 640,000 people. It is the goto place online for news of Vermont. It began as a one-woman effort by founder Anne Galloway, merged with the Vermont Journalism Trust, and now has an impressive staff and even a backoffice as well.

    • Anne Galloway

      Thank you, Tom! VTDigger.org is an entrepreneurial project that operates under the aegis of the nonprofit Vermont Journalism Trust. We generate revenue from readers, business sponsors and foundations. We also resell our statewide news content to local newspapers. About 40 percent of our funding comes from business sponsors; 15 percent from readers; 10 percent from large donors; 3 percent from resale of content. We are working to further diversify our revenue streams.

  • http://buzzmachine.com/ Jeff Jarvis

    In addition to those you kind commenters list, shame on me for not also listing The Batavian as a hard-working, dedicated site.

    • http://howardowens.com Howard Owens

      Woot. Thanks, Jeff. I just tweeted — LION Pub. There is a longer list now than there was a few years ago … dozens of really dedicated, hard working entrepreneurs who are having varying degrees of success, but success nonetheless. As we’ve been saying all along — local doesn’t scale. It’s the independents who will outlast the one-size-fits all approach. It isn’t just about tailoring a news and advertising model to each individual community, but it’s 1,000 flowers blooming, all being different varieties, and the most hardy experiments will survive.

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  • Dick O’Hare

    Great post, Jeff. We founded Local Yokel Media to help solve the revenue [problem you have been siting. We are designed to especially attack point #2 and give hyperlocal publishers access to a broader base of both national and local advertisers at more premium rates.

  • http://twitter.com/kaelgoodman Kael Goodman

    Hey Jeff, Thanks for the props to Brooklyn. Yes, there are some great sites in Brooklyn and at BlankSlate we have already banded these sites together in to a network that has the critical mass needed to do business with large agencies and advertisers: Brownstoner, Brooklyn Flea, The L Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, Brokelyn, and more. To your point, we have an inside sales team that handles the monetization of these sites. We have been gradually extending the network to other cities. You can see the list here: http://www.blankslate.com/advertisers

  • Karl Hakkarainen

    As Jennifer Doyle and Jenn Lord Paluzzi noted, the Daily Voice used good material, built solid sites, and had what it needed to succeed. It appears that hubris at the top, rather than short-comings at the street level, caused it to stumble.
    In our town’s case (Holden MA), a very hard-working young reporter covered the town, making good relationships with people and agencies. Although from away, he worked hard and built the relationships that he and we needed..
    One last point that drove away several advertisers. When viewed on a mobile device, ads weren’t shown on the Daily Voice’s website and in the daily email blast. After a while, local businesses wondered why they were paying for ads that no one was seeing. Responsive design done wrong.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gainor Dan Gainor

    A point no one wants to address is does anyone care about local journalism? Sure, journalists and news junkies do. But that is increasingly LESS of our population. We are all bombarded by information. More information may not appeal to readers, no matter how much we think it should.

    Part of that reason is that people don’t live the same way they did during the suburban exodus and rise of the community weeklies. Now, thanks to 24-7 connectivity, they have Facebook groups, friends in foreign countries, Pinterest buddies they trade recipes with and more. Americans particularly are increasingly isolated from their physical neighbors and close to their friends on social media.

    So targeting their geography might not work except in unique locations. You have to target their new communities — Wow, Tour of Duty, fantasy football, recipes and more. And none of those things is inherently local. Sure, we all need dry cleaners and parents care about local schools, but many people are not part of their communities. Maybe too many for hyperlocal to work.

    • http://www.berkeleyside.com/ lknobel

      I’m not sure what you base your views on, Dan.

      Perhaps Berkeley is a particularly engaged community, but our readers — a significant proportion of the city’s population — respond passionately to our coverage of what happens in the city. Not everyone wants to read about the City Council’s sifting of the annual budget, sure, but they find plenty of interest in crime reporting, school coverage, arts, etc. And we throw in the City Council for free!

      I agree that your other communities need coverage. But plenty of people want to know about the place they live and/or work.

      • http://www.facebook.com/gainor Dan Gainor

        I base it on decades of journalism and an awareness that many people spend some or most of their lives online. We don’t live like we did 20 years ago. It’s unrealistic to expect we want the same in journalism as we did. To think that way is a recipe for disaster.

        Sure, we all love news. Personally, I enjoy reading about zoning. Most people do not.

        We all want to provide information to the most information-saturated public in history and we wonder why they might not read.

  • Kristine Schultz

    Great post, and I agree that we should keep websites alive. You gave good tips and how to keep a website going and I think when businesses use other medias as well to advertise themselves really helps, because some people may not know their website.

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  • Joepentiom

    Ha ha Jeff, we win. We were always going to win
    Signed
    Newspapers

    • http://buzzmachine.com/ Jeff Jarvis

      If that’s victory….

      • Bruce Apar

        Pyrrhic, to be sure.

    • Karl Hakkarainen

      From 1994: Why Are Newspaper Profits So High? http://www.ajr.org/article.asp?id=69

      Like turkeys on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=609003340 Mark Swanson

    It’s not just sites, but plenty of *print* community newspapers that continue to make money, despite the naysayers. Our paper is 112 years old and it’s been in the same building for 110 of them. We don’t consider ourselves employees. We’re stewards. Plenty of our readers go to town meetings with copies of our paper in their hands. SMBs know our readers are intensely loyal and they come to us with their money.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Orren/1311032 Mike Orren

    1. It’s really tempting to look for trends in these sorts of scalebacks, closings, etc., but it’s usually specious. Seems a good time to trot this out again: http://justbeamazing.com/2009/08/24/heresy-du-jour-1-there-are-no-trends-in-start-ups/

    2. Can’t resist pointing out that Pegasus News (2005-) is still around, albeit with a somewhat less “hyperlocal” focus than it once had. And I have hope that its current (fourth) owner, The Dallas Morning News will re-elevate its customization features to make it more clearly neighborhood focused again.

  • Bruce Apar

    “Hyperlocal Cooties” is a treasure trove of observations I’ve also long harbored about both Patch and the ham-handedly branded The Daily Voice (nee Main Street Connect). They are not about journalism or content; they are naked business models. That makes their conception and infrastructure arguably cynical, as if there’s a shortcut, a secret potion, to successful journalism. One might even suggest that a critical mass of hyperlocal sites is an oxymoron, as if every unique community can be templated into homogeneity. (As it is, these so-called hyperlocal sites mix in content from proximate communities, rendering them more interlocal than intralocal; forgive my jargon too far.) Technology — no matter how sophisticated, no matter how cool, no matter how new — doesn’t change the essential building blocks of the trade, as recited to his charges repeatedly by the most incisive publishing boss I ever had, Bill O’Brien of Cahners: Compelling content will attract an audience and advertisers will follow. O’B Wan Kenobe also liked to put it more pithily: “First we’ll be best, then we’ll be first.” The aforementioned hyperlocal sites wanted to be first fast, and best was laid to rest, aptly enough, in Mass.

    • Mark Chapman

      Bruce,

      Exceptionally well written and reasoned. “Compelling content will attract…” is nearly verbatim what I said to Carll Tucker at The Daily Voice when I interviewed with him in September 2011 (and I never met Bill O’Brien…). He agreed, he said, and that was the first of many prevarications I discovered. As for TDV, it has just filed for Chapter 11 protection because of a suit by reporters paid less than $30K a year who were denied OT while being expected to create 25 stories — or “assets,” as he called them — a week. Legal fees were killing him, he said, and referred to the 3 employees who filed the suit as “mad dog predators,” according to a story in the NY Post.

      Mr. Jarvis: You cite StreetFight as a source for the story about TDV. Be careful. The “reporting” is horribly one-sided and inaccurate, and would never get past my desk as an editor. Full disclosure — I am not part of the suit, nor would I be, although I have other non-legal grievances. My wife, on the other hand, routinely worked 50 and 60-hour weeks (and more) for at least a year before Mr. Yardeni came on board as CEO and made a serious attempt at making TDV compliant with the law and a decent place to work. Unfortunately, that did not extend to other upper-management hires, but that is another story and speaks more to the content Mr. Apar so accurately blasts.

  • http://twitter.com/Addiply RickWaghorn

    Very interesting…

    In the meantime we continue to build our own model around outsourcing sales to those that know what they are doing sales-wise; we can’t all be Howard Owens.

    So take your 90% revenue return and split off a commission sell on an open and automated basis. Give the local ad agency 40% and you’re still taking home 50% for no sales resource. And for those that like to build, our API is going Public this summer thanks to a $85,000 grant from the Technology Strategy Board here in the UK. So help yourself, go build new apps and fresh tools that could work for you.

    And if they do, just tell the rest of us.

    And if anyone is in Tokyo at the end of next week, let’s do a saki…

    https://live.addiply.com/ja

    Best etc

  • Phillip Blanchard

    “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?”

    Those are important considerations. There is a surplus of dedicated journalists who have nowhere to work, hard or othersise. Many of us aren’t interested in alternative jobs.

    One of the many reasons I got into the news business was that I had no taste or talent for business. And selling ads is not only “culturally distasteful,” it is also a real ethical problem. Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe in keeping journalism and business separate.

    I haven’t worked as a reporter in a small town in quite a while, but I’m confident that reporters making sales calls would put off business owners and readers.

    I
    I would rather flip burgers than sell ads, not that I would be any good at either. If I
    edited a “hyperlocal” news outfit, I would never expect my reporters to be
    salesmen. That doesn’t mean they don’t have to attend Rotary meetings, but it
    does mean that they remain observers, not participants. I wouldn’t even want
    them to join the singing.

  • TownSquareBuzz.com

    TownSquareBuzz.com has been going strong for almost seven years now. You are spot on with the ‘survivor’ reasons, especially about being involved in the community. We just opened a storefront in our city’s downtown square to improve our offline engagement and accessibility.

  • jorgin

    nice post

  • santiago87133

    comment

  • jorgi

    nice topic

  • Katie Nelson

    Based on what I’ve seen, the most successful hyperlocals do well when they focus on one topic. You mentioned the West Seattle Blog, but what about GeekWire? They focus almost exclusively on technology news originating in Seattle, and they have quite the following because of their near-monopoly on such a specific subject.

  • http://www.desertvortex.com/ Dean M Gray

    Out in the California desert communites around Palm Spirngs there are 11 cities and over a half million people to cover for http://desertvortex.com … our newsroom grew organically and independently, without academic support or deep pocket support. We are reaching out now to join the party.

  • loopeditrix

    So let me ask you this. Which do you think readers prefer? Not journalists, not venture capitalists, not big agencies and big advertisers, but ya know, readers. As loathsome as mainst/daily/patch are to many of us, I wonder.

    • Scott Gamon

      Right on. I love my local Patch. Are the workers exploited or something? I don’t know. We’ve burned through three “editors”, so maybe. But I treasure the coverage it provides, and so do a lot of others in my community.

  • Warren Webster

    Jeff, I applaud your support of the independent news site, and I’m with you. I agree that providing resources and the benefits of a network will be enormously helpful for them, and ultimately for the communities that they serve.

    However, I wouldn’t dismiss the larger efforts like Patch just yet. I could list all the stats about how Patch continues to add local, engaged users in over 900 communities, increasing by 50% in 2012 vs. 2011. Or how we receive requests from neighboring towns asking if they too could have a Patch site because they see the benefit to their neighbors. Or the frequent examples of journalism awards from local press associations — or even more meaningful, the daily examples of how a Patch site has made a real difference in the life of a resident of one of our towns. (Not to mention the fact that many Patch sites are profitable and more are on the way – we doubled revenue in 2012 over 2011). But to specifically address the points made in your post, I would say simply that you shouldn’t forget that the majority of what Patch is in each community is the result of the hard work and dedication of over 900 professional, full-time journalists who are dedicated to serving their community day in and day out. They make decisions every day about what will best serve their community and they are using the Patch platform to do it. Patch has invested in them by making them full-time employees with benefits. And they have the benefit of a larger organization behind them, working 24/7 to find ways to do things better, more efficiently, and always with the aim of creating a long-term, sustainable organization that will serve these communities – and employ journalists and others – forever. This is why I come to work in the morning, and why hundreds of my colleagues have joined me in this endeavor. It’s time to encourage their efforts, not dismiss them, and to root for everyone — small and large — who spends time working toward the future of our industry.

    Did we make a large investment? Yes, I happen to believe that this kind of long-term investment is what is needed to solve a problem of this magnitude, and a look at the history of many of the world’s most successful endeavors would support that notion. My hope is that the work we do, along with that of other digital plays, traditional media outlets, independent sites, maybe even government agencies (gasp), and anyone else with the same passion will allow us to emerge as a remarkably robust and healthy industry. All signs are pointing that direction…

    Your friend,

    Warren
    Patch Co-Founder

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  • http://www.juliebrookssmallfortune.com/ Julie Brooks

    Some great points in this article and comments. Local online news is in crisis, and the only way to emerge alive is to build a business model after questioning/debunking the underlying assumptions which may in fact be all or partly wrong. Every single assumption needs to be on the table. Here they are:

    1. That people want local news.
    2. That local newspaper advertising worked efficiently for most businesses.
    3. That online display advertising actually works
    4. That most small businesses need more business than they are now getting for free from being discovered on national freemium style sites i.e. Google maps, Trip Advisor, Yelp, etc.
    5. That local journalism should be supported by businesses in for profit ventures
    6. That the few local news success models are actually successful beyond 2 people who work 120 hours per week to earn a modest living and hire some freelancers. Success is self reported in these cases.

    A lament: why has Starbucks succeeded in getting people to pay $2 per day for something they could make at home but local news sites can’t get people to pay $2 per month to get local news which they could never produce on their own?

  • Martin

    Thank you so much for the great article, Jeff. While reading it, I thought about our meeting 5 years ago when we, in the German-speaking world, were still at the beginnings of hyperlocal journalism and reader reporters. A lot happened since then and we now have several very successful examples for functioning hyperlocal journalism with citizen reporter participation:

    - Regionalmedien Austria: They produce 129 hyperlocal newspapers all over Austria and have 150,000 registered reader reporters (they call them regionauts) uploading hundreds of thousands of articles and photos which the editors can seize on and publish.

    - Lokalkompass: In the Ruhr area, the WAZ runs this online portal with 35,000 registered users. The editors modify their local articles (more than 8000 every month!) to issue 58 local advertising journals with a print run of about 4 million copies.

    - http://www.myheimat.de/ This online platform meanwhile has about 50,000 registered users, who produce an incredible amount of local contents. Big publishers edit and use these contents in order to enrich their local sections with these valuable contents.

    - Why are those 3 so successful? I believe, that with the right technology, the necessary experience and an established print product, it is possible to reproduce hyperlocal successfully. The topic is complex, and you can make a lot of mistakes. We summarised the experiences we made with reader reporters in the last ten years in 10 important statements (only in german): http://www.gogol-medien.de/leserreporter/

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  • FLV Hosting

    30a TV is a hyperlocal success story. An idea on a napkin to shoot hyperlocal TV on the beaches of NW Florida with original content thrown in has spread to syndication on Roku boxes, national websites such as Filmon.com and many more. A local following has grown into an amazing audience size for the content shown. Information, Entertainment, Beach Style, http://www.30a.tv

  • http://twitter.com/OmahaNewscom OmahaNews.com

    We’re throwing our hat into the hyperlocal ring. OmahaNews.com launches in 2014 – we’re planning and laying the groundwork now.

  • Keith James Designs

    There are three hyperlocal models worth watching. The first is Mike Orren’s Speakeasy ( http://yourspeakeasy.com/ ) who has partnered with the Dallas Morning News. I think Speakeasy is probably going to get it right since they have the support of the Dallas Morning New’s sales team. Mike will be the first to tell you that “smile and dial” doesn’t fit this particular business model. Mike is a smart guy having previously run Pegasus News ( http://www.pegasusnews.com/ ) and I have no doubt he has a firm grip on a successful business model.

    In sharp contrast to this model is Datasphere Technologies ( http://datasphere.com/ ). Datasphere is VC backed and seems desperate to hit their numbers. A quick Google search shows that they aren’t exactly in the business of customer satisfaction ( http://www.bbb.org/western-washington/business-reviews/internet-marketing-services/datasphere-technologies-in-bellevue-wa-22524740 , http://www.yelp.com/biz/datasphere-technologies-bellevue ). This is the curse of VC backing. They have recently partnered with Belo ( http://www.belo.com/ ) to help expand their growth.

    The third model worth watching is Brian Clark’s Your Boulder ( http://yourboulder.com/ ). Brian is the founder and CEO of Copyblogger Media and is one of the most knowledgeable in the field of content marketing. Brian’s approach seems to be a slow (sometimes painfully) and steady ramp up. The Your Boulder project is still in it’s infancy and there may be quite sometime before it can be monetized. I think this may the best approach since we still don’t fully understand the hyperlocal business model.

    I’m still not sure what hyperlocal business model if any is going to prove to be profitable. What I do know is that it is worth watching and experimenting with.

  • http://vsellis.com Scott Ellis

    We started Frisco hyperlocal site http://lifestylefrisco.com using Brian Clark’s model. We’re only a couple of months in and seeing strong traction with the site despite the embedded competition.

    One of the comments in the article is a point I’d like to add emphasis to: It requires people in that location who are dedicated to making it work. We’ve considered other locations to branch out to eventually but we really can’t until we have someone there who is as dedicated to that area as we are to Frisco.

    Doing this from “afar” just won’t work in my opinion. Even if we wanted to, there is so much to be done to keep up with our location that it wouldn’t be practical with out very local help.

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