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Cracking the Local Market: Beyond 2.0's Wizards of Oz

Tom Grubisich
Published: June 24, 2008 at 4:26 PM (MST)
[Editor's note: From time to time, I will invite a handful of guest writers to answer a question over of the course of a week. This week, the question is "how can journalists crack the local market?"

Newspaper companies, search engines, Web start-ups and independent journalists all are looking to capture the "hyperlocal" market, delivering neighborhood news and information to attract neighborhood advertising revenue. Today, Tom Grubisich kicks off the week with look at the current state of neighborhood news websites. - Robert]

With eyes closed, push a pin on a map, and you'll land almost certainly on a community that has a website offering grassroots news. Just a few years ago, you would have had to take maybe 10 or 20 stabs with your pin to connect. Welcome to the miracles of Web publishing 2.0.

That's the above-the-fold good news. The bad news is that the profusion of hyperlocal sites has not led to the creation of thriving and lively virtual town squares across America. Most sites are not much more than cybernetic scrims behind which 21st century Wizards of Oz manipulate news aggregators and other software marvels of the 2.0 revolution.

Each Wizard tries to outdo the others with extravagant promises about their Emerald Cities.

‘Local-local' networks

Outside In claims it reaches "11,860 towns and neighborhoods." Topix claims "over 20K cities and towns across the US." Your Street says it's in 50,000 communities. OurTown, in a boast that, so far, no one has topped, says it reaches 70,000 communities.

But just like with the original Wizard of Oz, when you peek behind the scrims of these hucksters, you discover the reality: The huge networks have little actual connection with the communities they claim they serve. The sites are really aggregators on steroids.

I went to Topix's site for Reston, VA – I used to live there – and this was the headline on the homepage's lead story:

"Microsoft loses U.S. search users to Google and Yahoo."

Yawn.

I then went to Topix's site for Santa Monica, CA – I used to live there too – and this was the headline on the homepage's lead story, which had a Sacramento deadline:

"Opponents prepare for November election."

Yawn.

The only news on the homepage I could find that served Santa Monicans was the weather report, but even it lacked the all-important wave forecast that surfers use to decide whether they're going to work or call in sick.

To give their sterile news feeds spice, some of the networks throw out chunks of red meat in the form of national and international issues like same-sex marriage, gun control and rants by Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the bait works, with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of comments that hiss, hoot and insinuate through cyberspace ("Amahdinejad befriended HUSSAIN OSAMA OBAMA, now they both are ganging up on Bush"). This is called, in the words of Topix CEO Chris Tolles, "engaging into commentary."

A special failure of scale is YourHub, which covers about 110 communities in Colorado, California, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, New York and Pennsylvania where E. W. Scripps Co. has a daily newspaper or partners with other properties like Dean Singleton's Los Angeles Newspaper Group in the San Fernando Valley. The print papers provide some content for the YourHub and also publish free weekly versions of the "best" of the YourHubs.

Despite their print resources, some YourHubs just can't seem to find timely news. On June 18, the one in Anderson County, TN, produced by the Knoxville News Sentinel, featured two stories from June 17 (both from the same high school), one from June 6 and another from February 26.

YourHub still publishes PR masquerading as news, which I documented in "The Sweet (and Sour) Smell of Success at YourHub" in Online Journalism Review in 2006.

Some hyperlocal networks have tried to succeed on a less-grandiose scale than those sites in the virtual Land of Oz.

TribLocal, which the Chicago Tribune launched last year and has expanded to 27 communities, is the equivalent of an online scrapbook of swim meets, youth baseball and school fairs. Nice, but not exactly exciting.

In Dallas/Fort worth, Pegasus News has figured out how to scale across more than 150 communities in Dallas/Fort Worth and offer much more than scrapbook news. While it delivers a daily diet of hard and soft content, Pegasus shows its no slave to aggregation feeds by seeking out and promoting what's funny, weird or wacky ("Break-in artist mishandles Grand Prairie home invasion, shoots self dead").

Fisher Communications, which acquired Pegasus from founder Mike Orren last July, said in November it would expand Pegasus to other cities in "the coming year," but so far it's yet to move its needle beyond Dallas/Fort Worth.

Perhaps the most interesting new hyperlocal network is GateHouse's Wicked Local, which covers 158 communities in metro Boston, on nearby Cape Code and in Worcester County in Central Massachusetts). The overall GateHouse Media company looks to be in financial trouble, but that isn't distracting Wicked Local. ("The site says its "Wicked" stands for "very," as in "very local.")

Wicked Local's rich menu of hard news and features comes from the staff of GateHouse's print products; grassroots contributions are limited to comments on the stories. There's not a whole lot of comment. Even the Gloucester High School "pregnancy pact" controversy hasn't provoked much discussion.

Wicked Local has added some creative social media features. Its TownConnect lets users hook up with other people in their own community or anywhere else, and share info about schools, sports, groups or events, as well as photos. Users can add other family members to their profile (with restrictions for 13 years of age and younger), their nanny and even pets.

There's a Wicked Local Parents section that includes seven blogs on subjects like parents, children's health and homeschooling.

In design, most hyperlocal sites veer between the extremes of an automated news-feeder scroll untouched by human hands and a hard-to-browse hodge-podge of headlines, promos and ads that involved too many hands. But Wicked Local packages its considerable content as cleanly as any major general news site.

The best of the one-off's

While the trend in grassroots hyperlocal is moving toward networks (grandiose or non-grandiose), some of the best sites are one-off's that started as Internet-savvy labors of love, and haven't lost one heartbeat of their passion. Two originals are Westport Now in Connecticut and iBrattleboro in Vermont.

I wrote about both sites in articles for Online Journalism Review in 2005 and 2006. But here's what their founders say about their sites today.

Gordon Joseloff, founder of Westport Now:

"Traffic continues to soar, and last month the Connecticut chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists awarded us top prize in the 2007 Breaking News, Web category (for coverage of flooding in Westport)…

"We also won in the new category, Web: General Excellence, Independent.

"We have suspended active solicitation of local ads during my term as first selectman (mayor) of Westport (which runs at least until November 2009). However, we will accept national ads, as well as unsolicited local ads, especially when it's clear the advertiser has no knowledge or interest in my town position.

"So, in short, we continue to build a growing audience; we bring in enough revenue to keep us going, and we have an increasing stable of contributors eager to see their words and pictures on WestportNow.

"Now in our sixth year, WestportNow has built a reputation as a timely, reliable, and highly credible source of news and information about Westport, Conn.

From Chris Grotke, co-founder of iBrattleboro:

"We're actually doing pretty well. We keep growing in contributors (1750 registered users) and readers (50,000 a month or so). We won the lawsuit against us. We keep adding features and columns (BrattleBarter; Ask A Cop).

"The first phase was to build up the number of readers and contributors, plus establish some credibility. Last year Lise [LePage, co-founder] and I decided that iBrattleboro was doing well enough to go to phase two and really try to sell advertising.

"Up until now, we sold ads passively - if someone contacted us we sold an ad. This spring we decided to be active. We're building up a database of regional businesses, inviting them to advertising, establishing long-term relationships (we hope), offering deals, and learning about things like annual advertising budgets, the yearly advertising cycle (holidays, niche markets and seasons, etc.)…

"It's also hard in that neither of us are salespeople. (It makes sense that after inventing citizen journalists there would be a need for citizen ad reps, right?) I know about marketing and PR, but that's different than sales in some big ways.

"It's all starting to pay off. We're getting advertisers and they are getting good ad views and clicks. We're also lining up people who will advertise with us in the future, and next time their budgets get planned we'll be included…

"We've also started a regional job board that, we hope, will develop into an additional income stream at some point. It's brand new and we need to do some selling of it, now, to the employers of the area.

"So, we haven't "turned" editorial success into business success yet, but we are "turning" it and hope to get there soon. We still do web design, though.

"And, if the ten year plan is correct, we should be able to live comfortably off the site alone by Feb. 2013. : )

"Ingredients? Probably some mix of the following: Quality of product. Building a loyal and broad audience appealing to advertisers. Getting the numbers/stats in the right zone to match or exceed other regional media. Inviting folks to advertise. Having something advertisers want - a targeted audience.

"Scaling, for us, is just becoming sustainable, and continuing to remain useful and interesting. We are interested in consulting for others to offer our wisdom and advice to startups and established media outlets, and we continue to work on a book in our spare time."

What's next for grassroots hyperlocal?

While the best one-off's serve their communities as 21st-century, interactive versions of William Allen White's fabled Emporia Gazette, in today's brutal media climate they are not likely to represent the future of grassroots hyperlocal.

The future will probably belong to scalable (and well-funded) networks, most of which aren't very hyperlocal (at least in providing what pioneer Rob Curley calls "big J" news), and even less grassroots. But there are some hopeful possibilities. Both Pegasus News and Wicked Local are owned by companies that strongly believe in "local-local" and that at least some content should come from the grassroots (real grassroots, not the AstroTurf of the hyperlocal Wizards of Oz).

Glenda the Good Witch, are you out there in 2.0 land?

Next:
"Cracking the Local Market: It's a Great Time to be a Journalist" by Chris Jennewein
"Cracking the Local Market: The Inherent Difficulty" by Robert Niles
"Cracking the Local Market: What Suburban Weeklies Can Teach" by Tom Noonan

From John Wilpers on June 24, 2008 at 11:43 AM

Great overview of the local market, Tom.

You are absolutely right about the pretenders (Outside.in, Topix, YourStreet, OurTown).

I just checked OurTown for my town (Marshfield, MA) and they didn't have a single story about it, offering instead stories from Cape Cod and Plymouth that they'd scraped from not-very-local newspapers. And they don’t offer forums or comments.

Topix, too, failed. Their lead story was from the town next door. Their second and third stories, while local, were four and seven days old respectively. And while there are lots of Forum topics, most have only one to three comments.

Outside.in was even worse: The lede story was seven days old. And they had no discussions at all. No surprise, given the quality of the site.

YourStreet was the worst: No articles. And that was when the site was working. A check earlier in the day said, "Whoops, it looks like something isn't working quite right." That's for sure!

And while Wicked Local is definitely better than the rest, there are still execution and involvement issues to be resolved. Marshfield is a Wicked Local town, but only 15 of the more than 25,000 residents had registered on WickedLocal. The site is updated only once a week most weeks. And, as you observed, there are few comments. There are also no local blogs.

I think the future of local news involves, well, involvement, which the pretenders don't even pretend to offer.

Newspapers have connections in their communities. They must use them and build even more connections to get people involved in their newspaper's websites and print editions.

Newspaper editors must also open up their websites AND their newspaper pages to bloggers and vloggers and then promote the hell out of them. And, they will have to put the user content not in the classic blogger index ghettos, but on the theme-appropriate pages of the websites and the newspapers.

And they will have to do it before someone else, like a Pegasus (pegasusnews.com) or the Huffington Post, comes along and does it for and to them.

I write more about this on my blog.

From Carl Natale on June 25, 2008 at 9:20 AM

Here is the problem:

"TribLocal, which the Chicago Tribune launched last year and has expanded to 27 communities, is the equivalent of an online scrapbook of swim meets, youth baseball and school fairs. Nice, but not exactly exciting."

No it's not exciting to journalists. But it's what people want to see. What do you think hyper-local means?

The challenge to successful hyper-local coverage is knowing what people want covered and caring about that coverage.

Newspapers are in trouble because they are less relevant to readers. Swim meets and school fairs are relevant.

From Tom Grubisich on June 25, 2008 at 9:38 AM

Agreed. TribLocal does "little J" -- to borrow again Rob Curley's excellent terminology -- but not "big J." At least TribLocal gets something right. The giant networks that claim to serve anywhere from 11,860 communities to 70,000 don't get anything right -- and they may prevail in the intensifying local-local competition. How would that serve communities that want or at least would welcome truly interactive hyperlocal sites?

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