Local ain’t easy (cont.)

Catching up on my blog reading this weekend, I see further discussion from the folks at the frontlines of trying to make hyperlocal work. We all believe it will work. It has to. We care about our towns. We write about what we care about. Local advertisers care about us. It has to work. But how? No one has cracked the code yet. Because local ain’t easy.

Jay Rosen asked Liz George, Debbie Galant’s partner at New Jersey’s own Baristanet.com, to review Backfence.com, a funded hyperlocal content company in Virginia. I’m a big fan of Baristanet and I was glad to be around in its delivery room; Debbie has said she was inspired to chuck big media and go hyperlocal at least in part at an NJ.com hyperlocal meetup we held when I was there. I’m also a friend of Mark Potts, who with his partner, Susan DeFife, founded Backfence; Mark learned from a number of other projects, including Northwestern’s GoSkokie.com project, which I worked with while at Advance. So I’m rooting for them all to find the way to make it work. I theorized. They’re doing it. They’re putting their money where my mouth is.

In Liz’s strong review of Backfence, we see a conflict of two models: centralized efforts to encourage hyperlocal citizens’ media (Backfence, Riffs, Judy’s Book) v. decentralized efforts that start up on their own (Baristanet, Gothamist, H2OTown). Decentralized is messier but I believe it is ultimately the way things will work because it is truly about local control: In the decentralized model, people start their efforts because they want to, not because somebody had to convince them to. On the other hand, I learned through Advance and GoSkokie that to make this work, hyperlocal needs TLC in some form: functionality, content, promotion, ad sales, something. What’s the right mix? Haven’t the faintest.

Then Pegasus chimes in, arguing in favor of some form of hybrid, but Pegasus remains an unlaunched unknown there.

The bottom line is that we need more experimentation and study and — I agree with Lockhart Steele — more study to find out what clicks.

Stop be before I call for Hyperlocalcon.

  • For future reference, you can find the blog about Pegasus News here, Jeffro —

  • This post was featured on SmartChristian.com/blog.

  • I built a hyperlocal system but it was ultimately killed by the execs having final say on the user interface. It’s an interesting prototype if nothing else.

  • Jeff: You know, you did a good local job with New Jersey Online – http://www.nj.com — before someone allowed it to become a repurposed newspaper.

  • I think decentralized would work if we had one more technological puzzle piece that we don’t have yet: web geolocation. Right now trying to figure out which blogs are local to you is still a painstaking manual process. It’s not scaleable in the sense that web developers mean by scalable. Ideally, there would be an opt-in way to “tag” your site with a particular location. This would make local aggregation a less manual process. The bonus is that it would make it possible for advertisers to target content locally in ways that are impossible today — thus giving local blogs a way to support themselves without relying almost exclusively on the shoeleather work of approaching local advertisers one by one on their own.

  • Second that Lisa. The way we do it now at Philly Future is prohibitively manual and based upon trust. I’m a big fan a hybrid approach as well.

    Jay Rosen summed up up our approach better than I could have (hope he doesn’t mind me quoting him):

    Karl’s Philly Future is more or less the model Jeff Jarvis says is needed. Let “content creation” stay at the edges, which means let it remain embedded in individual lives, self-driven, entreprenurial, quirky, with the personal authority Daniel Conover has been writing about on these boards.

    This is “the 300 or so other local blogs in our area that we highlight,” as Karl puts it. They’re the creators– the distributed gods of the universe. We use the shorthand “at the edges” in the sense that each toils in its own space (not your space), but the lines all connect. Philly Future, Karl’s site, makes sure of that. It aggregates, motivates, highlights, and equips the little gods of content creation.

    Jarvis says “it’s hard to convince people to contribute content to me when they can now control content on their own.” Real innovation will never come by expecting people to make good stuff for your site.

    Our volunteer team acts as newsgathers in a fashion that Jeff decribed in an earlier buzzmachine piece – which was a great read since it confirmed our approach was on the right track. They write new content when we find it missing in the community – but the main goal is to find what’s here and bring it to the fore.

  • “little gods” — I wonder if he’s read Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, a book about minor local gods who only remain godlike as long as people pay attention to them (There’s some parallels to blogs there, maybe).

  • I’m going to lose geek points for admitting this – but I have yet to read Terry Pratchett – this after a very close friend has been begging me to – swearing I would love his books – for many years. I’m due :) Maybe a Christmas gift to myself.

  • I’m just curious– where do Jeff and others people think that local Indymedia websites fit into the hyperlocal phenomenon? I’m not talking about http://www.indymedia.org, but rather the “ends” of the node– the locals like http://chicago.indymedia.org, http://nyc.indymedia.org, and http://www.indybay.org

    I know that Indymedia is an ancient dinosaur when compared to the hot hyperlocal phenomenon, and I also admit that its had its fair share of problems. Then again, its an agressively local news service almost entirely volunteer driven that actually does some real “reporting.” Isn’t this what hyperlocal journalism is all about?

    Chris Anderson
    PhD Candidate, Columbia University
    Graduate School of Journalism
    NYC Indymedia Volunteer

  • I think the Indymedia sites were ahead of blogging, just as the Seattle anti-globalizing protests were “ahead” of smart mobs.

  • We have a great Indymedia effort here in Philly that was famous for a time during the GOP convention back in 2000:

    Slashdot opened before Indymedia, but not by much (a couple years?).

    Indymedia – as well as Slashdot – should be part of any citizen journalism discussion. I realize they are different kinds of communities, as Jay said in a related thread – a community of interest, versus one of a community grounded in place (hope you didn’t mind me quoting you Jay) – but there are enough similarities to warrant discussion. The editorial flow/moderation systems/content management systems of many of our efforts are very similar. Note I say “our” since I feel we are birds of a feather here, despite differences.

    I think there is a lot to learn from Indymedia and Slashdot.

  • Chris, I think you make a very good point.

  • I don’t think there’s any question the Indy media sites (and yes Slashdot) were pace setters.

    Karl: A writer never minds being quoted (accurately of course.) I’ve been writing and circulating my thoughts for 20 years and I have yet to cry foul that so and so “took” my idea. To me that’s the whole point: take, take…

    Which reminds me: Jeff, please don’t refer to your own writing as “blathering,” and if it’s truly blathering then don’t post it.

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  • Jeff:

    You wrote, “Decentralized is messier but I believe it is ultimately the way things will work because it is truly about local control:…”

    I think you’re absolutely correct about local control being essential. I’m not so much worried about the messiness but the feeling of ownership by those contributing is essential.

    The problem with local control is that the entreprenueral types with the vision just don’t have the financial resources of a chain newspaper or multinational media corporation.

    As entreprenuers with media backgrounds are the most likely to launch such a venture, they are also likely to adopt an advertising model. This puts them in direct competition with not only the newspaper, but the shoppers and other media all going after the somewhat unsophisticated small business market in most trade areas. My experience with local newspapers is they do sense my site as a competitor and any mention in the paper is rare.

    Adding insult to injury is the fact that the small business market itself is under stress. In most US markets in post Wal-Mart America, you’re also dealing with anemic and struggling local retail segments. Instead, with chain restaurants and retailers dominating most local markets, the cost of selling advertising to marketing managers in distant states is prohibitive; assuming they have an interest in buying a hyper-local market at all.

    You go on to write: “hyperlocal needs TLC in some form: functionality, content, promotion, ad sales, something. What’s the right mix? Haven’t the faintest.”

    If I could juggle ad sales in with the other demands, I might just be close to the right mix.

    Pardon me while I crow a bit. My site, Paulding.com, will become a big-board (one of those local message boards) this week when our 6200+ members post their half-millionth post since the site’s launch in August 2003.

    This was done in what is arguably the poorest (smallest commercial tax digest percentagewise), youngest (average age), smallest (just over 100,000 population) and least well educated (smallest percentage college graduate) county in the Atlanta metro area.