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    Your Guide to Hyper-Local News

    by Mark Glaser
    December 13, 2007

    i-39017eda34e02e178c88f311fa7501f1-Northwest Voice logo.JPG

    From time to time, I’ll give an overview of one broad MediaShift topic, annotated with online resources and plenty of tips. The idea is to help you understand the topic, learn the jargon, and take action. I’ve already covered blogging, citizen journalism, widgets and other topics. This week I’ll look at hyper-local news.

    What Is It?

    Hyper-local news is the information relevant to small communities or neighborhoods that has been overlooked by traditional news outlets. Thanks to cheap self-publishing and communication online, independent hyper-local news sites have sprung up to serve these communities, while traditional media has tried their own initiatives to cover what they’ve missed. In some cases, hyper-local sites let anyone submit stories, photos or videos of the community, with varying degrees of moderation and filtering. Pioneers such as Northwest Voice in Bakersfield, Calif., and YourHub, which started in Denver, actually reverse publish select material from their websites in print publications. Both of them are run by mainstream newspaper publishers.

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    The motivation for starting independent hyper-local sites is often to tell the previously untold stories of communities, while also bringing like-minded people together online. Mainstream news outlets that have created hyper-local sites are trying to engage their readers, while also creating a place for smaller, niche advertisers who want to reach a highly geographically targeted audience.

    The business models for hyper-local news sites are still evolving, and some independent sites are run as labors of love by their publishers and communities. Venture-funded startups Backfence and Bayosphere tried and failed to make a business out of creating a series of hyper-local sites, while Pegasus News was recently bought by Fisher Communications.

    Methods for Collecting Hyper-Local News

    In the past few years, people have used a variety of methods to capture hyper-local news, from assigning professional journalists to hyper-local beats to collecting stories from interested citizens, to a combination of the two. In terms of presentation, the storytelling format has included everything from articles and videos to blogs, wikis, and annotated maps. The following is a list of some of the ways that traditional and independent media have gathered hyper-local news.

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    Self-moderated citizen media
    Perhaps the least work-intensive approach to a hyper-local news site is simply allowing people to post their stories with minimal moderation. The moderation could depend on users flagging submissions as inappropriate, or on a publisher who might check the site for obscenities or spam. A common challenge with these sites is getting people to contribute content on a regular basis, and then filtering or highlighting the best material.

    Strengths: Open format invites more participants.

    Weaknesses: Takes hard work to get people to contribute; varying quality of submissions.

    Examples: Philly Future, BeniciaNews.com, IndyMoms, iBrattleboro, NowPublic

    Reverse publishing citizen media in print
    Many sites ask people to tell the stories of their community, either with text, photos or videos. But if the site is associated with a traditional news outlet — most likely a local newspaper — there are usually more stringent rules for moderation. Eventually the best of the online content is reverse published into a regular print publication that goes out to people who live in that community. Professional editors might eliminate submissions that contain libelous or offensive content, and could spend time filtering and highlighting important issues.

    Strengths: Higher quality content and filtering of stories; increased distribution in print with more ad revenues.

    Weaknesses: Contributors don’t get equal exposure across platforms, and the excerpted content may exclude some points of view.

    Examples: Northwest Voice, YourHub, Bluffton Today

    Involved proprietors on blogs
    Rather than opening up the editorial to citizens, many place-specific blogs are written by people who review local happenings with a unique voice. These blogs might include polls or comments so others can contribute, but the main focus is on the voice of the bloggers. Some of these blogs cover small suburban areas, while others are focused on urban life.

    Strengths: Stronger editorial voice and consistent publishing schedule vs. citizen media efforts.

    Weaknesses: Personal viewpoint does not represent the variety of voices in a community.

    Examples: H2otown, Baristanet, Gothamist network, Metroblogging network, WestportNow

    Aggregation sites
    These sites include very few original stories, and simply aggregate and link to stories found on other news outlets or blogs for that locality. Some do include ways for people in the community to share their views on stories with comments or forums. Topix, for example, has had success reaching small rural areas by being the only online outlet for news in those communities.

    Strengths: Low overhead and largely automated operations.

    Weaknesses: Not enough local flavor or voice, except through outside links.

    Examples: Topix, Placeblogger, Outside.in

    Annotated maps
    Sometimes a map — rather than a news article or commentary — can give people a better idea of what’s going on in their neighborhood at a quick glance. Adrian Holovaty’s ground-breaking ChicagoCrime site lets you slice and dice the city by neighborhoods to see what types of crimes have been committed there. Other news organizations and startups have done the same by using customizable Google Maps.

    Strengths: Shows people very quickly what is happening in their specific geographic location.

    Weaknesses: Maps often don’t give enough context and depth, and navigation is often difficult.

    Examples: ChicagoCrime.org, YourStreet, San Diego County Fires — KPBS

    Mobile journalism
    A few traditional news organizations are experimenting with having their reporters go out as “one-man bands” who write up quick reports, take photographs or video and file them from the road. Gannett has tried to do more coverage of community events, while Reuters is working with Nokia to outfit reporters with gear to get raw footage of live events as they happen.

    Strengths: Quick coverage of more events on the fly.

    Weaknesses: Lower quality video and photos; not enough time for thoughtful work.

    Examples: Reuters Mobile Journalism, Gannett’s MoJos

    Email lists and online forums
    Perhaps the most overlooked way that communities can stay in touch and share news is through email lists and online forums. Many of these are ad hoc lists created by citizens, with the content coming directly from them. These email lists let you get a daily digest of all the content in one email and allow you to respond or post your own items. The subject matter can be instensely local to your neighborhood,

    Strengths: Very local information helps neighbors get to know each other.

    Weaknesses: Usually not a lot of moderation so content quality can be low.

    Examples: Front Porch Forums, DCWatch

    Evolving Business Models

    While no one disputes that the Internet and new technology can help small geographical communities share news, the open question is whether these connections will lead to profitability for news organizations or startups. And what’s also unclear is whether independent startups have an advantage or disadvantage to existing traditional local news outlets. Northwest Voice and YourHub have been financially successful for their parent news organizations, but most of their revenue comes from reverse-published print editions. Hyper-local startups with venture capital funding such as Backfence and Bayosphere have flamed out because they couldn’t get enough locals online — and the advertising to support their businesses.

    i-672893a765caea33e880e4c0658a913a-YourStreet map.JPG
    YourStreet map of San Francisco news

    Two newer hyper-local startups, YourStreet and EveryBlock, are aiming to use more aggregation and annotated maps to show what’s happening in a locale, without having high-cost editorial from reporters. But there remains a tough balancing act between using amateur or automated information and on-the-ground reporting by professional journalists. Journalist Steve Outing, who helped start The Enthusiast Group as a series of niche sites about sports, wrote about his lessons learned when his business failed and how that could apply to hyper-local sites:

    We believed that having a core level of professional content — from our site editors — would be enough to attract a loyal following even if the user-submitted content wasn’t enough on its own. But I think we didn’t have nearly enough of that. If I had any money left to throw at the business, I’d hire more well-known athletes and adventurers, so that the core was a larger pool of professional content — and I’d mix that in with the best user content.

    I’m not saying that user-submitted content isn’t worthwhile, let me be clear about that. I am saying that I think you can’t rely too much on it. And you need to filter out and highlight the best user content, while downplaying the visibility of the mediocre stuff.

    While the online business model is being sorted out, newspaper publishers have been making money by selling print ads into special editions that are stocked with the best of the online content. Travis Henry, the editor of YourHub at the Rocky Mountain News, wrote about that paper’s experience running various hyper-local news sites since 2005:

    YourHub has registered over 34,000 members in the Denver metro area alone. We have 18 print sections just in Colorado. YourHub is now live in eight states and poised to launch in more, admittedly with varied results. In Colorado alone we have more than 3,000 stories posted a month and more than 3,000 events a month. Our biggest achievement has been the creation of an awesome online community that has become a large family of sorts. User gatherings we have held have been powerful and prove that this is an experiment worth going forward.

    We have been in the black since our first year. Most of our revenue comes from print advertising.

    i-b5ca5b279a1e8c65aeb43f0cbb6ae18e-Travis Henry.jpg
    YourHub’s Travis Henry

    J-Lab, an incubator of news experiments at the University of Maryland, conducted a survey of 191 hyper-local sites in early 2007 found that most sites are simply labors of love, funded by founders who are not out to make a fortune. Of those surveyed, 51% said they don’t need money to keep the operation going, and 42% said revenues didn’t cover their expenses. But they were largely happy with the local impact their sites had made, with 73% saying their sites were successful.

    Whether hyper-local sites are run as an adjunct to a traditional media outlet, run as a labor of love or non-profit, what’s most important for the public’s interest is that the community feels connected to a news source or website that engages them and lets them discuss intensely local issues.

    Resources

    To learn more about hyper-local news sites, check out these news articles and blog posts:

    Co-Founder Potts Shares Lessons Learned from Backfence Bust at MediaShift

    Blogging Places in Kairos

    Citizen Media — Fad or the Future of News? at KCNN

    Facebook Goes Hyper-Local with Neighborhoods at Lost Remote blog

    Front Porch Forum Fans Adore Hyper-Local Email Reports at MediaShift

    Hartsville Today — The first year of a small-town citizen-journalism site at KCNN

    Hyper-Local Citizen Media Sites Learn How to Serve Small Communities at MediaShift

    Insider info puts city blogs on the map at USA Today

    Is YourHub.com Dead? at YourHub Denver

    Mobile Journalism on Moving Ground at Poynter

    A Newspaper Chain Sees Its Future, And It’s Online and Hyper-Local at the Washington Post

    Papers take a leap forward, opening up to new ideas at USA Today

    Really Local at American Journalism Review

    The important lessons of Backfence’s closing at Terry Heaton’s PoMo blog

    The Washington Post to Trade in Hyperlocal News on the Web at the New York Times

    What do you think about online hyper-local news efforts so far? Which ones do you follow in your neighborhood or community? What business model do you think will work? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    UPDATE: Some people have written in the comments that their sites were miscategorized in the “Methods” section above or that their site doesn’t fall neatly into one of the categories. I guess that’s a common problem when you try to categorize sites that are evolving and combining so many different methodologies at once.

    For instance, Lisa Williams of H2otown says that her site does include citizen contributions, though she tries to post three times per day on weekdays. I would still consider her to be an “involved proprietor” and her voice does dominate it. KOB believes that the DCBlogs site not only provides an automated feed of local bloggers but also builds community as well. And David Bullard at Fulton Daily News says that his sites are a hybrid between “involved proprietor” and citizen media.

    I’m sure there are many more sites that don’t neatly fit into the categories above, but I still defend those categories as a way to grok the way hyper-local news sites have operated so far. I’m sure that will continue to change over time, so stay tuned, and keep the comments coming.

    Tagged: business models community news hyper-local
    • Bighow.com, softly launched a month back, when it will be finished, an unlimited number of communities and localities around the world can share the latest news, ideas, opinions, links and ads on dedicated location-specific pages.

    • Bighow.com, softly launched a month back, when finished will enable an unlimited number of communities and localities around the world to share news, opinions, ideas, links and ads, on dedicated location-specific pages.

    • Mark:

      I’d like to know where we fit.

      We’re a 9 year old company and publish two websites, fultondailynews.com and oswegodailynews.com.

      We are independent — no radio/TV/newspaper to feed us.

      Our reporters report and file the top stories of the day while we also run the news the community sends us. So, we’re not strictly “citizen media”, and not “proprietor involved”, as there’s a proprietor (me) and two reporters and a sports reporter and part-timers who broadcast live sporting events for us.

      Today, that meant a total of 17 new pieces of content — a bunch written by the staff and a slightly larger bunch submitted by the public. Some days, more; some, less. (See the All Stories page on the site for the full list)

      Honestly, we’ve felt since day one, nine years ago, that someone was gonna come along with lots more money than we had (and still have) and do what we’re doing, better. Hasn’t happened.

      We’ve felt that citizen-contributed content without reporter-written content is equivalent to having a street-level view, but no ability to see the wider picture. And a website that is totally staff-written (syracuse.com, in our area, is an example) is the big picture without the small picture.

    • Hi, Mark —

      Actually, H2otown is a hybrid; while I provide the drive behind the site, anyone in town can get their own account and post stories to the front page. I try to put up three items a day on weekdays; the rest is contributed by other members. For a community the size of Watertown (32K) depending on contributions only leads to the deadly Rattle-Bag Effect — an inconsistent mix of topics, inconsistently posted. I think there are certain basic scale issues for community sites that pose a challenge for many hyperlocal efforts.

      Lisa

    • Hi Mark,
      When you talk about Mobile Journalism, you call it ‘poor quality video.’

      It’s not. Did you look at Reuters fashion show video? It’s the Nokia 640×480 30 fps video. It’s not poor quality.

      http://reutersmojo.com/2007/09/06/badgley-mischka-runway/

      You know I’ve been working with the Nokia N95 for a while now. I think the quality it great. Although it’s not as good as something like miniDV or HD, I wouldn’t call it ‘poor’ quality.

      That’s like saying that all YouTube videos are ‘grainy.’ They aren’t.

      I am going to be experimenting a lot more with Mobile Journalism in 2008.
      –Steve

    • Hi Mark,
      When you talk about Mobile Journalism, you call it ‘poor quality video.’

      It’s not. Did you look at Reuters fashion show video? It’s the Nokia 640×480 30 fps video. It’s not poor quality.

      http://reutersmojo.com/2007/09/06/badgley-mischka-runway/

      You know I’ve been working with the Nokia N95 for a while now. I think the quality it great. Although it’s not as good as something like miniDV or HD, I wouldn’t call it ‘poor’ quality.

      That’s like saying that all YouTube videos are ‘grainy.’ They aren’t.

      I am going to be experimenting a lot more with Mobile Journalism in 2008.
      –Steve

    • kob

      Hi Mark,
      Good post but one category it doesn’t cover are local aggregation sites that focus on building community.

      Our blog, dcblogs.com, is focused on blogs in the Washington DC area. We provide a daily, editor-selected, round-up of interesting blog posts, as well as maintain a feed engine. Reviewing hundreds and hundreds of blog posts is an effort that takes tremendous effort by a handful of volunteers.

      But this is the point I really want to make: Most new bloggers do not seek out local aggregation sites for listing because they either don’t know about the service, are afraid of it, or believe their effort isn’t significant enough. You need to help them. This is completely unrecognized aspect of local, community-focused blog sites, but it is their most difficult and important mission.

      The major goal goal is to discover new bloggers in our community, put them on the radar, connect them with other bloggers, help them build an audience, and offer encouragement by highlighting their work. The daily round-up and feed aggregation are only the most visible tools for accomplishing this.

      Independent, self-motivated bloggers, are the best source of what’s going on in a community; how people feel, what they think about.

      In your Oct. 31 post about the Southern California fires, “Traditional Media Evolves for Wildfire Coverage, But Hyper-Local Still Lacking,” was on target but didn’t quite get at the reason as to why hyperlocal was missing.

      There was plenty of hyper-local, hundreds of blogs posts about the fires, but what was missing were the resources to find these bloggers. There are thousands of local bloggers in Southern California. Why would SoCal be any different from DC or NYC in this regard?

      But why was hyperlocal missing from local coverage?

      Building local community means finding that local community. In addition to our live feed list, which has over 1,000 registered local bloggers, we have an internal RSS list with hundreds of other bloggers in the local area who aren’t in the feed engine; we add blogs to our lists weekly.

      When news breaks in our community,we have the ability to survey a large number of local blogs. Most news media organizations don’t have that capability and haven’t thought about the need to invest, truly invest, in becoming a resource for local blogging.

      In Southern California, there was no doubt hundreds of first person accounts on local blogs about the fires. Why weren’t these bloggers highlighted in the local coverage? Because search engines can’t easily find them. Local bloggers may write potently, powerfully and dramatically about local events but they don’t write with search engines in mind; many bloggers leave out the fact details, neighborhood names for instance, that news reporters are searching for. That’s why hyperlocal fell short in San Diego — because no one was prepared. The hyperlocal content was there, but no news organization had invested in bringing it together. They believe that local bloggers will come to them. They haven’t shaken away, completely, the isolating attitude that has cost them readers.

      I understand completely why people who look at dcblogs.com think of it as a simple aggregation site with a nice little round up. Much of the work we do — discovering new local bloggers and connecting them to our community — isn’t apparent. And so it true for others who work in a similar way. It’s our most important job and least obvious one.

      If a dcblogs-like operation had been running in San Diego and Los Angeles when the fires broke, the local news coverage would have access to local blogging resources that today, they don’t even know exist.

      Independent bloggers are a constantly renewing, changing and emerging source of information. Trying to keep track of what’s going on in these communities, is as difficult as watching the progress of a single ocean wave. The changes and the shifts aren’t apparent because there are so many of them. But with effort, care and a little love, you can at least help everyone get an appreciation of the beauty, depth and richness of independent local bloggers. For a news organization, this kind of attention will give them access to a world that can transform and deepen their coverage.

    • Like Dave B, I would say that none of your categories match what we are doing at West Seattle Blog. Two of us run it, both experienced journalists from “old media” and “new media” backgrounds, and we file tons of original, albeit often brief, coverage, as well as edited – sometimes only lightly – reports from community members, including photos. We personally cover many events that otherwise would have no local coverage because they’re not big enough for the citywide media, or, if they attract the interest of the local weekly newspaper, won’t appear in its pages for days. We do not allow direct posting to the site aside from comments and forthcoming forums; even if we wind up posting a reader contribution verbatim, we want to review it ourselves first. Always subject to change, of course. Where we diverge from your examples in the “involved proprietors” category is that “voice” isn’t so important to our site – after our first year, we backed far away from personal opinion, and now focus on classic editorial impartiality, albeit with a conversational tone (which is how we operated as broadcast and print journalists as well). We think we do include a variety of community voices – they’re the ones writing to us with tips, rants, suggestions, events, requests, etc. Revenue-wise, we just started running ads a month ago and aren’t doing too badly so far – growth will be a challenge, but we are expanding our content in ways that we hope will serve our community better as well as offering new options to potential advertisers.

    • Great roundup-

      Our startup, theUpTake.org , is taking the hybrid approach: professional video news mixed in with our community content – however to raise the quality we suggest all our community contributors take our training.

    • I’ve published a neighborhood site here in Richmond, VA, the Church Hill People’s News, for over 3 years now. As the only “voice” on the site, I try to post neutrally and let my neighbors sort it all out in the comments.

      In the past year, a whole pack of other independent neighborhood sites have sprung up, and there is now a site, RVA News, that aggregates these neighborhood sites to work as a grass-roots city-wide news source.

    • I’ve published a neighborhood site here in Richmond, VA, the Church Hill People’s News, for over 3 years now. As the only “voice” on the site, I try to post neutrally and let my neighbors sort it all out in the comments.

      In the past year, a whole pack of other independent neighborhood sites have sprung up, and there is now a site, RVA News, that aggregates these neighborhood sites to work as a grass-roots city-wide news source.

    • Charlie

      Check out http://mync.com

    • jim

      you have to love the local news. great information on this site.

      new technology and electronics

    • Well call me hyperlocal. It was fun when unique, but now that everybody is telling the “untold” story it seems we have heard it before. Looking for the new niche way to intrigue the imagination and satisfy the curiosity.

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