Posts about hyperlocal

Supporting the new news ecosystem

Friend Mark Potts is announcing a new company today, called GrowthSpur, which will help support what I believe will be the future ecosystem of local news. You can read about it at Jon Fine’s column in BusinessWeek and on Mark’s blog. I’ve been helping since its early phases.

Mark, who also founded and learned a lot of hyperlocal lessons at, saw a need and an opportunity in providing news to metro areas as newspapers there fade. Like others, he and I – being editors – thought of organizing shock troops of journalists to go into such silent markets. But then we realized that there already is journalism happening there with bloggers and former journalists starting sites to serve local communities. So it seemed the real need and opportunity was to provide business support for them: helping them survive and succeed online.

And so that’s what GrowthSpur will do: optimize the business of local sites and blogs – hyperlocal blogs, local interest blogs, new news organizations. It will help them create and sell better advertising and services for local marketers. It will help create metro-wide and local networks. It will enable new revenue models (think: e-commerce). In short: Its aim is to improve the business of local news. Potts has assembled a team to do that.

At the New Business Models for News Project at CUNY, we’re seeing that hyperlocal blogs can already be good businesses and through the efforts of enterprises like GrowthSpur, we think they can be even better, which we believe will encourage more of them to start (more on that soon). At the Project, we’ve worked with Potts et al; they’ve helped us with thinking through models and we’ve helped them – and other enterprises – with research and analysis, all of which we’ll be sharing on the project’s site.

I’m excited to see entrepreneurship come to local news – not just mourning over the fate of legacy businesses and institutions but investment in the future of journalism. At the NewBizNews Project, we’ve surveyed scores of local bloggers and sites that are making new, sustainable businesses. We will be advising them on how to improve those businesses and we hope that might inspire more journalists and bloggers to join in. We’ve gotten advice from new companies like Merrill Brown’s Prism, which has a plan for metro news and will build it. We’re collecting new revenue models. We’ll soon share much more about our research and models. The bottom line: There is a bottom line for news.

: And here’s John Thornton, founder of the Texas Tribune, talking about his investment in local news from the not-for-profit perspective.

Charity or collaboration?

The New York Times has accepted free stories from ProPublica. It has endorsed a journalist getting help from the public via Spot.US to underwrite a story that might appear at And Poynter’s Bill Mitchell says the paper is even wondering about foundation support for its work (but for perspective, I suspect one could safely say The Times is wondering about any possible economic model of support).

All this is being viewed as charity: giving The Times gifts directly or indirectly to produce journalism in its pages, physical or digital.

I think that’s looking at it – and at The Times – the wrong way. I prefer to think of it as a few of many possible forms of collaboration to create journalism that may or may not appear in the paper (and to which it may or may not link). I prefer to think of the paper as the organizer of networks of journalism.

Thinking that way, then when The Local, the hyperlocal blog at The Times, asked for a volunteer to cover a meeting it wasn’t planning to cover, you could say that it was asking for a charitable act. I’d rather say The Times was opening up to collaboration.

And let’s say that a local blogger covers the meeting and reports on it on her own blog and The Local takes advantage of that by aggregating, curating, quoting, and/or linking to that report. The net result is the same but that’s not charity. It’s cooperation.

Go one step farther: Say that The Times lends a video or sound recorder to that blogger so she can better report on the meeting and provide more coverage to her and The Local’s readers. Is that support an act of charity to the blogger? No, it’s collaboration. (By the way, this will be happening when CUNY provides equipment and training to members of the communities in The Local’s footprint as part of a Carnegie Corporation grant we just received.)

When we define The Times solely as a commercial institution that produces and controls an asset – the news – then any provision of money or effort to it appears to be charity.

But when we define the news as the creation of a larger ecosystem and The Times as just one member of it, then help – money, effort, equipment, training – instead appears to be collaboration.

And once one looks at the ecosystem through the lens of collaboration, then many other things are possible: then The Times (or any other member) could organize many members to work together to produce journalism no one of them could do alone. Then we start to account for the value of the work of the entire news ecosystem not based solely on the size of the staff of the last newsroom standing in the community; we open up to volunteer and entrepreneurial effort that can expand the scope of journalism far, far past what that one newsroom could do.

So I say that The Times and other papers opening up to the work of others supported by others is not an act of begging and charity if it is one bit of evidence of opening up to collaboration.

Now having said all that, I’m aware of the issues that are raised by giving of any sort and Clark Hoyt‘s and Bill Mitchell‘s columns address many of them: the potential for influence from the donor leading the list. There can also be tax questions (only a gift to a 501c3 is a charitable deducation and when is value received by a for-profit company taxable income?). There are labor delicacies when volunteer take on the work formerly done by staffers (there’s one of the reasons that professional journalists sneer at citizen journalism; it’s not always about high standards but instead about self-interest).

Still, I say it’s important to open up journalism and its institutions and players to many kinds of collaboration in a new ecosystem. That cooperation should extend to the commercial – revenue – side of the equation as well, as advertising and ecommerce networks enable each member of the ecosystem to gain more value together than they could alone. This is a key assumption of our work at the CUNY New Business Models for News Project.

One more caution: As we debate and explore the opportunities for charitable and volunteer support of journalism, it is important – critical – that we not declare surrender against the hope that journalism can be sustained in profitable enterprises. This is the keystone of our NewBizNews work at CUNY. We will estimate how much charitable support is possible in a market and what it can buy. We will also emphasize the importance of including volunteer effort in viewing the value of the ecosystem. But we also stipulate that none of that – not foundations, not the goodwill work of bloggers and neighbors – will support the level of reporting and journalism a community needs. And we believe that the market will support journalism – even the growth of journalism – commercially. We are working on models to examine how both the revenue and efficiency of enterprises in the ecosystem – news organizations to bloggers – can be optimized (we’ll be putting out models as we get closer to our first August deadline).

: LATER: Include in this discussion HuffingtonPost’s charitably supported investigative arm; the new Texas Tribune supported by VC John Thornton and friends; and a new philanthropically supported investigative unit in the U.K. They are not the future of journalism; they are part of it.

Help us help hyperlocal news

For CUNY’s New Business Models for News Project, we would be very grateful if local blogs and sites filled out a survey to give us data in our analysis and modeling of the economics of hyperlocal news. The survey is here.

We are trying to find out how hyperlocal blogs and sites are doing their business today – how big they are, how big an area they cover, what’s working in advertising and what’s not. The data they give will be kept anonymous; that is, we’ll release it only in aggregate. We’ll also interview some of you to find out more.

Out of this, we are working to build models to show how to optimize the business of the hyperlocal news site: revenue opportunities, network opportunities, and so on. We’ll share that work on the site as it progresses.

As of today, we have a director, a business analyst, two business consultants, two journalism graduates, and six business students working on this effort. It’s serious. The more information we have to work with, the better they can serve the community. So if you have a local news blog or site, please fill out the survey and pass it along to others you know.


Happy birthday, Baristanet

Baristanet, the queen of hyperlocal blogs, is five years old today.

I remember well the Meetup we held back then to try to encourage locals to blog on our site. I learned an important lesson there. Debbie Galant, the original Barista, said starting a town blog was a good idea but she sure as hell wasn’t going to do it for my site. She wanted to own and build her own site and value and brand.

And she did. Bariastanet is a phenomenon. It has not just survived but succeeded. It is profitable. It is expanding, adding another blog to its stable recently. It has developed a strong reputation inside Montclair and outside. Congratulations to Deb and Liz and company for that. They have inspired others to start hyperlocal blogs not only across the country but in their own backyard, as The New York Times creates The Local and AOL president Tim Armstrong funds Patch in the nabe. Five years ago, they knew they were onto something and they’re being proved right.

I think the next frontier will be creating networks across blogs of geography and interest so they can reach critical mass to sell to larger advertisers and to share content and effort and perhaps cost. I believe blogs such as this will be a – not the but a – building block in the new ecosystem of news that will begin to replace in fits and starts failing newspapers. (In that ecosystem, I think there will also be newfangled news organizations that help organize the news in this diverse network.) I also hope that we’ll find many new ways for the Baristanets of the world to serve local businesses and make more money so they can sustain their work.

Great work, Baristas.

NewBizNews: Hyperlocal

For the New Business Models for News Project at CUNY a key model we want to build is hyperlocal.

There are, of course, many views of hyperlocal and it will involve many different kinds of players, from sole bloggers to news organizations. The way I’d like to attack this is to try to create one or two optimal models for sustaining coverage in a towns, or collection of small towns, or neighborhoods in a city – the size of critical mass of the ideal minimarket is itself a key question.

I can anticipate Bob Wyman, one of the most valuable commenters here, scolding me for limiting myself to a traditional, geographically based structure. I wouldn’t argue. We will need many models that focus on coverage of shared interests as well and that will intersect with local services. But I’m starting here because the analogue is something we understand so well.

A key assumption that underpins my optimism for the future of news is that there is a new population of highly targeted (by geography or interest) businesses who never were served by news organizations that were to big, expensive, and inefficient. We will need to serve them in new ways – no longer selling scarcity in banners for eyeballs but in creating new services that help them succeed, in acting as a platform for their success. That brainstorming will be an important element of the project.

Note also that this set of models will feed into another set looking at this from the perspective of a metropolitan area, what we call the Philadelphia Project (i.e., what fills the void if and when its papers die); that will be the subject of an upcoming post. [I know, Bob, I’m still holding to old geographic models but after we plow through these, we’ll start working on national and international marketplaces of content and communities and they, too, will feed into these models).

One more note: I keep calling these models but they’ll really be more strategic plans. “Model” brings to mind a single spreadsheet describing a very finite business. The aim of these plans is more to show possibilities, to draw out specifics, to encourage further development and investment.

The first step in working on each of these models is to gather data. Here, I outlined a list for the discussion about paid content. Now, I’ll outline a starter list of information to collect about a hyperlocal market.

Experience: We’ll be grateful for every example you can give of local sites serving a small area (that is, smaller than a city) with basic metrics: size of the market, unique audience, pageviews, kind and mix of advertising and number of advertisers, revenue. We’ll also want to know the competitive landscape online: Is there a local weekly? Are there multiple blogs? Bulletin boards and forums?

Content and service: What kind of content, service, and conversation work? What does a local community really need in terms of coverage? How specialized does this get (e.g., mommy blogs)? What services could be needed (e.g., enabling people to schedule meetups and events)? What does a hyperlocal craigslist look like?

Market size: Out of this, we’ll want to start developing a picture of the elemental unit of hyperlocal: critical mass sufficient to build a site big enough to succeed. We’ll also want to try to get to definitions of local – town, neighborhood, county, group of towns (what do people mean when they say local; what do advertisers mean?).

Present advertising market: How much do local advertisers from the minimarket spend today? What is the proportion of larger advertising in the market attributable to the audience in this market (that is, if a network of hyperlocal sites competed with, say, a newspapers, how much is the potential for each member)?

Potential advertisers: In a given sized market, we’ll want to get a census of the possible advertisers: how many by category, whether they advertised before (newspapers, yellow pages, etc.), what they’re doing online (web site, Google ads, etc.). The more we can learn about

Advertisers’ needs: We will need to talk with local advertisers to find out what their needs are. As I said, they’re not going to be met by banners and CPMs. Do they need help on the internet and even with SEO (that was one conclusion of the revenue panel at our conference on New Business Models for News in October)? What other services could a local service or larger network provide?

Network potential: I don’t think a lone hyperlocal blogger in a town can reach optimum value with revenue just from that town. It will need to be part of a larger network (this is where it dovetails with the Philadelphia Project)) both to receive revenue from larger advertisers (the BestBuy gambit) and to have the ability to sell hyperlocal advertisers into a larger network (e.g., a store that draws customers from multiple towns).

Other revenue: Are local services finding any other revenue? Selling goods or services? Holding events?

Sales methods: With a finite population of advertisers, newspapers and broadcasters did very little selling (they’ll argue with that); they maintained lists. In reaching and serving new advertisers, we need new methods and need to be concerned about scale and efficiency. I’ve talked a lot about citizen sales. We also need to hear what’s working and not: telesales, direct marketing, automated online offerings, etc.

Pricing: What do we know about pricing new models to very small local advertisers?

Contributions: I’m favoring for-profit models but, of course, there are many local services supported by contributions. How much have they been able to get?

The value of volunteering: This is the hardest to calculate but is critical to the local models: People are contributing to the newssphere because they want to, because they care. With help, I’m confident they’ll do more. That’s part of what we’re trying to discover at CUNY in our work with The Local at the New York Times: how communities can be supported to report on themselves. This could be podcasting a school-board meeting or crowdsourcing projects or looking up records. This, like new ad models, will be the subject of some speculative brainstorming. And it will be difficult to put numbers to it. But it’s critical.

That all looks large and complicated, but in the end, our work on this model – this strategy – may look as simple as creating optimal scenarios for The Local or a local blog like Baristanet to succeed: maximum revenue from many sources to support maximum coverage.

[I wrote this on a plane ride and have no brain left so I apologize for typos and missing links; I’ll followup with those.]

Help your customers sell

I’ve long been wanting to see someone in the local news business — newspaper or newcomer — experiment with citizen sales (the revenue equivalent of citizen journalism). This, I believe, is one way to make hyperlocal sales scale, better than a sales staff at reaching more small businesses, more direct, personal, and helpful than telemarketing. The sales people could be bloggers who sell into their own blogs and into a network but they could also be people who just sell. I won’t know whether it will work until some folks try.

Now takes the notion farther, suggesting that especially in this economic meltdown — when more and more people are going to lose jobs and many of them will never go back to a company and will work independently — companies should not just sell to their customers but should help their customers sell to each other. It’s an extension of the idea in What Would Google Do? of following Google example by creating platforms for others to succeed. “Sellsumers,” is their title – they love to give trends cute titles and taglines: “Selling is the new saving.”

Newspapers used to let kids sell papers. Now they should let readers sells ads.

They should enable readers to sell content (rather than assigning a staff photographer to shoot that dull business-story picture, why not put the job out to bid to the community: the best photographer for the best price gets the gig).

They should also create platforms to enable readers to sell services to each other: cleaning, babysitting, tax prep, whatever. We’ve seen lots of no-cigar services that want us to rate local services. How much better it would be to create a platform for advertising, bidding, and payment; she who gets the most business is the best.

Etsy has space and equipment to help craftsmen make their goods and other businesses are popping up to do the same thing.

I think they could follow Michael Rosenblum‘s example and train people, in media or in any skill.

Trendwatching suggests helping people rent out parking spaces or storage in their homes.

Meetup provides a platform for people to organize events and clubs and even make some money at it.

And the list goes on. If a local organization thinks of the ways it can help organize the lives and commerce as well as the information of a community, of ways to act as a platform and enable members of the community to succeed, it can benefit in ways other than just trying to extract value from them. Create value. Enable value and see what happens.

Helping others do journalism

My Guardian column this week is on the New York Times’ hyperlocal experiment with mentions of CUNY’s involvement, Patch, and Barisatnet. Snippets:

The New York Times is embarking on a test of blogging in two neighbourhoods and three towns around New York. So far, there’s nothing remarkable in that: another attempt by a newspaper to grab for the elusive golden fleece called hyperlocal – the ability to serve readers and small advertisers in highly targeted geographic niches. But what is new in this effort is that the Times is trying to create a platform to help others – not staff reporters, but community members – make journalism. A wall just fell. . . .

All these parties must collaborate, not compete. They must create complementary content that fills out their local news worlds so that each of them adds value and stands out for it. Writing the same story everyone else is covering does not do that; it never did. They also should work together to create a framework that supports all of the sites commercially – that is, an ad network – and promotionally – that is, with links.

The days of one news organisation owning a town and its news are over; no one can afford to do that any more. Instead, if these experiments succeed, they will do so by collaborating to create a new network – a new ecosystem – of local news.

Their work is vital because I believe such structures will be the building blocks of the future of news – of what will replace or at least supplement the services that will disappear as regional and city newspapers shrink and die. And die they will. In the US, UK and elsewhere in Europe, metropolitan papers and their over-leveraged owners are in dire trouble. We have little or no time to decide what can and will succeed them. These efforts around New York are attempts at an answer. Whether they will grab the fleece at last, it’s too soon to say. I’ll let you know.

The local ad opportunity (and the danger of losing it)

The promise of local ad support for news will come only if a new population of very small businesses can be served in new and effective ways – before Google beats everybody else to it. That’s apparent in the results of Webvisible and Nielsen surveys reported by MediaPost (via Marketeting Pilgrim and Frank Thinking), which show that local marketers are leaving newspapers and the yellow pages but are still dissatisfied with – and don’t pay enough attention to – internet marketing. Factoids:

* 42 percent of small businesses say they use the local paper less and 23 percent use yellow pages less – while 43 percent use search engines more.
* “Though 63% of consumers and small business owners turn to the internet first for information about local companies and 82% use search engines to do so, only 44% of small businesses have a website and half spend less than 10% of their marketing budget online.”
* “Only 9% are satisfied with their online marketing efforts.”
* Mediapost found a disconnect in how small-business owners act as business people and marketers vs. how they act as consumers. That is, as consumers, they use and are satisfied with the internet and search to find other local businesses, but as marketers themselves, they use online less.

In these stats lies a big – but fleeting – opportunity: serving local businesses by helping them use online well. By this, I don’t mean doing what local newspapers have been doing: trying to sell them display or directory ads, just as they did in papers but in a new medium. Instead, I mean redefining what it means to help them succeed online. This might mean helping them place ads smartly on Google with good SEO (see Fred Wilson’s tweet out of our New Business Models for News Summit at CUNY). It might mean finding was to help local businesses interact more meaningfully with their own communities. It might mean enabling armies of citizen sales people – neighbors who really know their local businesses – to serve and sell those advertisers. It might mean providing tools to help local businesses create better (more informative, more SEOed) online presences and providing them data to show them their return on investment. I might mean finding other means to efficiently sell local businesses (can phone rooms ever work?). And so on…..

The assumptions I so often hear about local advertising – it doesn’t work; it doesn’t pay enough; small businesses are ignorant – need to be updated. The assumption that most needs to be updated is that a business needs an ad. It may need other tools to be found in search and to reach the right people and to improve relationships with them. All that may count as marketing, but not necessarily with an old ad in a new medium.