The Times & CUNY (and others) go hyperlocal

The New York Times is about to announce that it is starting a hyperlocal product called The Local working with our students at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism. PaidContent has the story early. So I’ll tell you about the school’s and my involvement and plans.

At CUNY, we were working on a hyperlocal plan of our own, aimed at taking one New York neighborhood and turning it into the ultimate hyperlocal community as a showcase to both demonstrate how a community could be empowered to report on itself and to create a laboratory where our students could learn to interact with the public in new and collaborative ways. The problem with teaching interactive journalism, which is what we call my department, is that students don’t have a public with whom to interact.

I spoke about our needs and plans in a trade group meeting of online editors in The Times building and the paper’s digital head, Jon Landman, pulled me aside to say that The Times had its own similar plans. We decided, I’m delighted to say, to team up.

The Times is working in two neighborhoods in Brooklyn — Fort Greene and Clinton Hill — and three towns in New Jersey — Maplewood, Millburn, and South Orange. In each of these two pilots, they’ll have one journalist reporting but also working with the community in new ways. The Times’ goal, like ours, is to create a scalable platform (not just in terms of technology but in terms of support) to help communities organize their own news and knowledge. The Times needs this to be scalable; it can’t afford to – no metro paper can or has ever been able to afford to – pay for staff in every neighborhood and town.

We also need to find the ways to make this new structure sustainable with ad revenue; that’s why I’ve asked the business school at our fellow CUNY campus, Baruch, to lend business expertise, working with The Times’ business people. We need to find new ways to both serve and sell very local advertisers.

At CUNY, my faculty colleagues Sandeep Junnarkar (fellow interactive prof) and Jere Hester (head of our NYCity News Service) recruited a half-dozen students from many eager volunteers. They will work with the Times’ reporter and editors in Brooklyn to both report and help the community work on its own in ways we can only imagine now: recruiting people, training them, creating crowdsourced reporting projects, helping people create their own sites, and more. These are mostly new frontiers. Our students will also work on the project during the summer, as Times interns, to provide continuity.

We at CUNY are seeking a grant to then take this all up a few notches. If we are successful, we plan to hire a part-time faculty member to oversee the project, work with other faculty members in other courses (e.g., we offer an urban reporting track), and probably create a course around the effort. We will hire trainers to offer hundreds of locals courses in the essentials of new media tools and journalistic practices and buy some equipment to support that (think: lots of Flips). And we would record our lessons learned in a blog and manual for the benefit of other news organizations, communities, and journalism schools.

The entire effort kicks off this coming week with Phase I (that is, what we can do before we get full funding). See comments from Timesmen under the Brownstoner , TechCrunch , and PaidContent posts. I think there’s a bit too much talk there about using free labor from bloggers and students. Instead, I hope we’ll see economic models that help support their work and encourage more to join in. But everything in its time.

At the same time, there are other hyperlocal projects in New Jersey in which I have a glancing interest. Friend Debbie Galant at Baristanet – the queen of the hyperlocal bloggers – is now so successful that she is expanding, doing a deal with one other local site in Montclair, and planning to expand in more areas. She talks about it here. And there is Patch, personally funded by Google’s Tim Armstrong, which is covering the same towns in Jersey as The Times; he wants to help communities organize what they know.

The one bit of advice I’ve given all these players is not to compete but instead to collaborate. We have to move past the old newspaper notion that one organization will – and can afford to – “own” a town. Those days are over. Instead, we’ll have ecosystems of local news linked together, and to support them we need complementary content and coverage and networks to sell ads into and for all the players. In a network that links to its own members (as Glam as proven) all ships will ride with the tide of links.

Whether my Kumbaya intentions can come true or not, we at last may be on on the verge of finally tickling the golden fleece of hyperlocal. It matters that The New York Times is trying to build a platform to cover local communities not with its own staff but by empowering those communities. It matters that a technology and advertising leader like Armstrong is investing in local. It matters most of all that a journalist like Galant is succeeding at reporting on her communities – journalistically and commercially.

When I envision the future of local news – what rises out of the ashes of metro dailies (and witness this week’s news: they are burning) – these are the kinds of structures I envision at the center of it: new slices adding up to a new pie. There will still be news organizations – and their job will, indeed, be to organize news – but they will no longer be at the center but at the periphery, helping those inside. There will be people who contribute to the ecosystem for many reasons: to make money, to inform the community, to learn, to catch the bastards. There will need to be an economic system and model that can support the best of this. That’s the hardest part, I think. But this is a start. Bravo for it.