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.]

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  • Jeff, I have no quarrel with “hyper-local.” In fact, I think it is terribly important. My only concern is that hyperlocal should be seen as a sub-class of the larger “hyper-focused” journalism problem and that we understand that hyperlocal coverage, while necessary, is not sufficient to provide a viable product in today’s market.

    Certainly, news which has primary relevance to one or another market is important to those who live in those markets and it makes sense to have news production organizations that focus on the gathering and dissemination of such news. However, the news or information needs of readers extends far beyond those which are defined by geography alone. Each reader belongs to a broad variety of “communities of interest” — only some of which are defined by geography. Other communities of interest include those defined by occupation, hobbies, political points of view, cultural heritage, form of arts, etc. The full range of opportunity for journalists and the needs of the market lie in addressing all of those communities of interest — many for each reader. And, just as “hyperlocal” is a legitimate field of specialization for some journalists, so is each of the other communities of interest or specializations.

    One thing that has impressed me greatly ever since getting into the computer business over 30 years ago is that “integrated” systems typically are much more successful in the long run than are “beast of breed” specialized systems. Thus, I’m concerned that in seeing the great value in hyperlocal news, journalists will tend to build products or sites that are exclusively focused on hyperlocal news when, I would argue, what the market will eventually settle on as “best” is sites that combine hyperlocal news with news that covers other focused communities of interest. Readers will tend to prefer a site that gives them “good coverage” of a larger number of their interests. In fact, they will often be willing to accept lower quality of coverage in individual areas if they can get a broader range of interests addressed.

    So, what I argue against is not the building of a news organization that dedicates itself to reporting on events local to “Broadway between 84th and 86th Streets” but rather I warn against building a web site that only covers such hyperlocal news. What we *should* have is a means for those who who cover that tiny portion of Broadway to share a platform with others who cover not only the rest of Broadway but also a broad variety of other communities of interest that are relevant to those who live on Broadway. For instance, I, as one who lives near Broadway and 85th, should be able to go to my “preferred news site” and get news not only about local stuff but also about the computer business, the newspaper industry, international affairs, opera news, etc. — the things I care about.

    What I think will work best, over time, is a small set of news platforms that specialize in the business of delivering a customized and integrated view of news which has been gathered and prepared by a larger set of news bureaus that each focus on some particular specialty (community of interest). In addition to your mantra that news organizations should “link to the rest,” I would also argue that they should not try to “stand alone.”

    Hyperlocal news is great. But, I think it is not sufficient to build a sustainable stand-alone product. The product delivered to the user should model the user’s needs — not just the capabilities of the producer.

    bob wyman

  • I’ve been blogging since ’03 and am really happy with my new little niche at the Examiner. It’s both hyperlocal (which management is really trying hard to get people to focus on) and national while also focusing on specialized topics.

    Over 5000 of us nationwide, we’re all independent contractors but have the benefit of the larger company promoting us and giving us some of the benefits traditional newspapers have, such as the ability to use AP photos. Having the Examiner name to invoke also helps as I’ve found I can get quotes from PIOs a lot easier than when I was just a lone blogger.

    I just keep thinking, Jeff, the Examiner is much of what you’re always talking about.

  • Jeff… your researchers are welcome to check out Front Porch Forum ( We host a network of 130 online neighborhood forums that blanket Chittenden County, VT. More than 40% of the state’s largest city subscribes. In one neighborhood we examined, half of the households had posted in the previous six months. Amazing levels of participation. Cheers.

    • The obvious question is: “Why isn’t FrontPorchForum” integrated into the site or the sites of the New York Times, WSJ or other newspapers that serve those in your community?” If the forum was integrated into the other sites, it would get additional traffic from synergies with the other non-local content. Additionally, the broader scope sites into which the forum integrated would get significantly improved ability to generate local ad revenues and, I assume, a very valuable “geo/demographc signal” to be used in optimizing ad serving. (The New York TImes should probably not show me ads for New York grocery specials if I’m a Burlington, VT resident…) Of course, if the FrontPorchForum does pursue integration with other sites, it should be careful not to fall into the trap of establishing exclusive relationships. (i.e. just because you integrate with the BurlingtonFreePress should not prevent you from also integrating with, and earning revenues from, the New York Times or the Boston Globe.)

      If you have focused content (serving some specific community of interest), you should be thinking about integrating with other content providers whose target markets overlap or compliment yours and with whom you can share revenues, technical resources, market knowledge, etc. Consider it very much like traditional content syndication.

      bob wyman

      • Hi Bob… glad to read your views. I don’t, however, find your lead question obvious at all. Front Porch Forum has been wildly successful in engaging this metro area because for many of our members it feels akin to a virtual block party with clearly identified nearby neighbors. The Burlington Free Press isn’t in the business of hosting block parties… nor is the Times… should they be? I don’t know.

        In fact, the Front Porch Forum model turns much of Web 2.0 conventional wisdom on its head… just where much of our membership seems to like it.

      • Richard Donnelly

        Intersting topic. Let me suggest for discussion anyway, vice versa, Bob. The neighborhood forum concept should be the “paper on your doorstep” with the other valued news/info sources along with it – not in it per se, but along with it. The “paper on your doorstep” is your portal, the very first thing you see after firing up your PC/device. I want to know what my neighbors need, who won the Yankees game, what happened at the city council meeting, etc. This is simply old technology (RSS) redefined for a news delivery model that better fits the needs for the consumer. Whether newspapers (however the evolve) can survive in this space continues to be a very interesting question.

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  • Hi,

    We are doing something similar in, serving contents to a small community where is not viable to have a tradiotional print newspaper. I agree about the interest of it and the strong participation. The most difficult part is that is very difficult to afford a good platform for contents, classifieds and social tools, as income are limited by the size of the market. The solution would come if a bigger organization would promote the alliance of a lot of hyperlocal agents, receiving all their specialised contents for a wider purpose, but respecting their identity in the local area. Traditional newspapers try to avoid this and prefer to pay huge money to the press agencies instead of developing local alliances that can perfectly be a great complement

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  • Telesales is actually good for promoting your affiliate products both online and offline situations..`.

  • thank you , great article