Posts about hyperlocal

The infrastructure project

Calling all New York and New Jersey news organizations: Want to enlist your audiences in a networked reporting project that will have a huge impact on government and make a difference in all their lives — a project you couldn’t do without them?

Get your audience to report on the failures of the infrastructure around them.

Put up a Google map (with Platial on top) and town and neighborhood wikis and ask them to pinpoint every failure of infrastructure — or feared failure — they see: streets that flood every time it rains, bridges that look just too damned rusty, potholes, pipes that burst, streets that don’t get plowed, streetlights that don’t work, signs that are missing. . . . Ask them for dates and other specifics and for pictures and video. Urge them to blog their stories of frustration and bureaucracy.
Use your promotional power and influence to mobilize your public.

Then do what you do best: add journalism. Go verify what they say and tell the story of that street that closes every time it rains, of the people whose lives lose hours as a result, of the government bureaucrats who should be fixing it of the money spent on other things instead.

And because you have your audience contributing vast amounts of information you never could have gathered on your own, you can see patterns that also become stories: What towns and neighborhoods are crumbling most? Where is money being spent and wasted most? Who are the officials overseeing the worst declines? What are these failures costing the public (how many manhours were lost in yesterday’s traffic jams?)?

Then when you do what local news organizations have always done — bring pressure for change — you get to take credit for not only improving the quality of life and efficiency of government, you also get to brag about working collaboratively with the public you serve. You can boast that you are a pioneer in networked journalism. You’ll be not only useful but hip.

Just a suggestion.

Local lives

NowPublic’s Leonard Brody’s a smart guy but I think he’s full of gas when he says that local doesn’t matter. He told Liz Gannes at GigaOm:

“I not a believer in local anymore,” said Brody. “I used to think that hyperlocal was what mattered to people, but for 35 and under especially, the concept of local is very different. Like Facebook publishing the news feed… it’s changed from hyperlocal to hyperpersonal.” Weather, traffic, and crime are important, but they’re commodities, he said, adding local politics might be the exception, but nobody cares about them anymore.

I agree with Rafat Ali’s reaction to that: “What he really means: local’s hard as hell.”

Amen. But important as hell. Let’s look at the front page of NowPublic right now. Here’s a story about a Caracas metro crash. Now I’m very sorry for the victims of this tragedy, but it doesn’t touch my life. It’s not local to me. It touches lives in Caracas. It’s local to them. Here’s a story about a fire in the Jersey pinelands. I’m in Jersey but that’s not local enough for me. But to the folks who can smell the smoke, it matters. It’s local. The UK floods story is international — at least on this end of the world — but it’s also a different story locally (see what the BBC did with maps in networked geojournalism).

Local is damned hard because no one yet — apart from newspaper companies — has managed to get a critical mass of local content and no one — including me — knows yet how to create an alternative that can gather and share that much and more on new economics. But I have no doubt — no doubt — that there will always be a market for local news. And I have no doubt, too, tnew tools and means and people — like those behind NowPublic — can be used effectively to help gather it. Still, it’s almost impossible for a metro paper — let alone an international citj service — to say it is local because the odds that it will have what is local to you are next to nil still. That’s what makes local so hard.

Not every story is local. And lots of local angles are insipid. But to say that young people don’t care about local is making the mistake the AP made with asap (see below). Beware.

I care about local and so do most people I know, regardless of age. We care about our local taxes, restaurants, crimes, construction, economy, services, communities, neighborhoods, and gossip, too. I would take in more local reporting — more broadly definied — if it existed. I say we need more local reporting, not less, and it needs to get more local. I would like to see how the NowPublic infrastructure could be outsourced to help incumbent local news companies and new local news companies do that. I think that would be a more productive path for discussion than just dismissing local as the province of provincial old farts like me. And then we need to organize it and that’s why I’m excited by Outside.In (to which — full disclosure — I am an adviser).

The great opportunity in local is that no one has solved it yet.

It’s about people

An interesting response to my post saying that local is about people.

Today, however, the news is still fundamentally organized around its content, its tiny bits of content, its data, whether those be newspaper articles, blog posts, podcasts, or webpages. That organization–in which people and issues are contingent upon the bits of content that discuss them–is a relic of paper and, just as important, html. The article has taken the story hostage. . . .

A newspaper article will get broken into pieces, like legos that interlock: “little objects,” as Scoble once called them. Those objects will be stored individually, deployable individually, graphable individually. Individually, but not alone. They will live in cells among millions of others cells, part of semantic hive buzzing with the fervor of the world’s news. Or at least the world’s news according the internet.

By slicing up the data, by breaking up the data, we can put it back together. Only we can put it back together however we like, as individuals and as a collective–confident in our ability to tell whatever story may yet be lurking in the interstices of modern journalism. Blogs created an army of journalists. The web needs an application that will arm a legion of editors, each driven largely by their own individual tastes for consuming news but cooking up social feast of intelligent information.

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.)