Posts about hyperlocal

Towns are hyperlocal social networks with data (people that is)

I think I’ve been thinking about hyperlocal the wrong way. Like most everyone else chasing this golden fleece, I’ve defined it as content, news, a product, listings, data, software, sites, ads. It’s not. Local is people: who knows what, who knows whom, who’s doing what (and, yes, who’s doing whom). The question should be — in Mark Zuckerberg’s famous-if-I-have-anything-to-do-about-it phrase — how we bring them elegant organization. They already are a community, already doing what they want to do, already knowing stuff. How can we help them do that better?

Local is people. Our job is not to deliver content or a product. Our job is to help them make connections with information and each other.

In truth, that was, long ago, the job newspapers saw for themselves. That’s why they lived to get as many names in the paper as possible. They knew: Local is people. Newspapers gave us news that mattered to us and would be trivial to anyone else. Newspapers were small and local and served their communities — and their advertisers — better. This is very close to the real mission of a newspaper, a mission we have lost as they got bigger and more egotistical and more powerful, as they become one-size-fits-all monopolies. Except today we have new tools (and new competitors). No one can or should do it all anymore. We need to help people do it themselves. Yes, themselves.

I’m not suggesting that hyperlocal is just a social networking tool. Or just a forum. Or just a bunch of blogs. Or just a listings tool. Or just a search engine. Or just a news site. It needs to end up being all those things and more. And as I said the other day, this will not happen in one place, on one site, but will be distributed across wherever people are being people and communities communities, locally. The trick, once more, is to organize it all. Elegantly.

And this will not happen all on its own. It needs investment, motivation, leadership, shared and distributed ownership.

What exactly does this look like? I’m not sure yet. I’m working on that. But I’m getting a better idea, I think, by working from a new starting point: People, not content. People, not data. People, not software. Long ago, when I launched the GoSkokie project at Northwestern’s Medill, I told the students that towns know things I wanted them to figure out how to tap that keg of knowledge. They got partway there with (which was a model for Backfence, by the way), but that was only partway.

I now believe that he who figures out how to help people organize themselves — letting them connect with each other and with what they all know — will end up with news, listings, reviews, data, gossip, and more as byproducts.

Thoughts from the beach. Stay tuned.

The local challenge

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.)

Bow-wow-bing

Here‘s a wonderful story from the queen of hyperlocal, Debbie Galant, on the power of a local site.

The most personal of news

One of the many things I left undone when I quit my job was a plan to start an announcement tool. I wanted a means for people to announce weddings, births, deaths, promotions, graduations, anything. This, after all, is the news that really counts in people’s lives. Now in the UK the Johnston chain of papers is enabling this with a company called iAnnounce.

The cost for announcement ads varies across titles but the interactive service will be automatically bundled with the print announcement. Members of the public can then offer to keep the page live by renewing the announcement for a monthly fee. . . . Chief executive Alex Stitt . . . said that in 2006, the announcement industry generated £80m in the UK with more than two million ads posted every year. As much as 95% of those are posted in local newspapers. “The need to announce is hardwired for people,” said Mr Stitt. “Local newspapers are all about community, and this takes something old fashioned and makes it exciting and new.”

It doesn’t get more hyperlocal than this.

The real networked journalism

Bakersfield’s collaborative pothole map. [via Squared]

What should local radio be?

At last week’s meeting of the minds at NPR, there was much discussion about the difficult position local stations find themselves in as the value of their distribution diminishes. And it was said, as an article of faith or perhaps reflex, that going local is the answer — the same answer given for newspapers these days. But as I thought about it on the train ride back, I wondered what that really means.

Obviously, it’s not easy for a radio station to get hyperlocal; it has just one big pipe and no resources to cover a market broadly. It’s not easy for newspapers, either, but they clearly have a headstart with a larger staff of reporters and the ability to slice their products into local zones. So I asked myself what the strength of a radio station is and the answer’s apparent: promotion. A station can drive a sizable audience to something new online. But what do they get when they get there? And what content on the radio station continues to draw the audience to give it that promotional power? Not easy questions.

I’d start and the end and say that a local radio station must stop thinking of itself as radio. It has the power to develop local communities of news, information, and interest. It can use its promotional power to drive people there. It could, for example, get people in a market to record every damned school board and town council meeting and put them online, served by the station. It could create the meeting place where people share news and information, competing with or even in cooperation with local papers. It could be a home for talk about local issues and news.

So what is the on-air content? It’s not hyperlocal. But it could be a meta version of that: talk about the issues that cut across the region with reporting from the best of the local communities. It could feature the best citizen critics giving you reviews of local arts and entertainment. I don’t come up with much here. So I’d say that the station has a limited time frame in which to use its promotional power.

Here’s Zadi Diaz’ take on the same issue out of the same meeting:

So why listen to radio?

There will always be a need to connect in real-time. To know that there is another person on the flip side that can give you perspective on the present and can communicate back to us. It’s a living, breathing thing. And in a world that becomes progressively automatic, the need to connect on a deeper level will grow.

People like to be social. Twitter is proof of that. To me twitter is the text version of a well-oiled ham radio. People sending out ideas, and questions, and mundane little things that may only be of importance to a handful. But it’s that instant live connection that makes it so special. You know what someone is doing at that very moment. And in a sense, it puts you there with them.

People also love to tell their stories. To each other. Conversation. The thing about Twitter that makes it electric is that there are multiple conversations going on at once. You become a receptor, a connector, and a storyteller all at once. I feel this is the key to the future of live broadcasting:

Becoming a converstation. No misspellings there.

Creating a converstation within NPR can only benefit everyone involved. Maria Thomas, who invited us to the panel discussion spoke about how NPR was born of storytellers. It immediately conjured images in my mind of people sitting around a campfire and sharing their stories. Around that campfire there is the storyteller and the people listening. The storyteller isn’t in a vacuum, there is ambiance, they occupy space, they are also listening to the listeners. The storyteller is the independent producer who is an expert in the story they tell. NPR can build small campfires and enable those storytellers to begin and ultimately develop the grandest story of all.

Local member stations+storytellers= campfires

Campfires can especially grow in a beautiful way online. The use of a website becomes less about providing news (we have feeds for that), and more about being a social hub where people can go to connect. There is a reason why there are so many social networking sites. Why can’t organizations think of their websites like they do their buildings?
– You have your reception area where the receptionist answers your FAQs
– Office spaces which are only accessible to employees
– Conference rooms where you hold meetings
– Mess hall where people from inside can congregate and speak to each other
– Lobby where people from the outside can talk to each other and to the employees
– Etc.. play room?

If you’re not afraid to open up your building to the public, there should be no fear of opening up your web site to a little one-on-one communication.

So what you end up with is an endless number of little radio stations making their own connections. The old radio station is some collection of the best or widest of that.

I’m still not satisfied that there is a great answer for local radio. But if the Siriux, XM merger (below) goes through, I think that creates more opportunities for local NPR radio. The rest of radio — from the big companies and from satellite — will be national. NPR member stations can be the last outpost of local radio. They can’t afford to get more local on their own but they can do it in partnership with their listeners.

: Zadi was nice enough to note:

- just googled the word “converstation” and realized Jeff had blogged about the word a while back. How funny.

Big media buys small

McClatchy buys two hyperlocal citizens’ media sites in California. FresnoFamous will continue to operate independently. It’s a smart move for McClatchy that also recognizes the value of these enterprises. It’s nice to see that a founder got an exit but that’s not the only way to work together; I say that big media can work with small media in other ways, such as becoming an ad sales agent.

BarisTV

Baristanet is now on TV. Check out the first episode about an issue ready to blow up in the ‘burbs.