Creating Journalists at Emmanuel College

A guide for ENGL 2501 and ENGL 3801

Hyperlocal journalism — it SHOULD work, but that’s not always the case

Bees

Busy bees. Photo by Jennifer Lord Paluzzi

I am attempting to introduce students in my Writing for Electronic Media class to different models of news sites. This week, we’re going hyperlocal.

This is the point where I laugh darkly. Shortly after moving to Grafton 10 years ago, I became frustrated with the lack of news coverage in town. We have a weekly, The Grafton News, and were, at the time, receiving indifferent coverage from the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. I sketched out some ideas on how I would create an all-online news site, discussed them at length with my father over the course of several Little League games, and put them aside.

Several years later, Grafton High was in danger of losing its accreditation because of overcrowding, there was talk of a new high school and the local media, I felt, was not providing me with enough details. I lost my temper one morning at the school bus stop, told a neighbor I could do a better job covering Grafton in my spare time, and went home and started a blog. I called it Greater Grafton.

That turned into a five year adventure that ended last March. I have definite opinions, you see, about hyperlocal media.

But this is not about me.

A hyperlocal site is dedicated to one town, one neighborhood, even one block. It’s news scaled to the interests of people who live in a common area — where is that smoke coming from? What did selectmen talk about at that meeting last night? What’s going on with that high school accreditation thing? Who is showing up in the police blog? What’s going in that empty storefront on Main Street? Is there a calendar that lists all the events that’s going on in my community?

Probably the best known hyperlocal sites are those run by Patch.com which, until recently, was run by AOL. Their original approach was simple: one reporter, one town, one website. The actual application of this approach was ridiculous: someone in New York would run the numbers of a geographic region, pick out which towns might be suitable for a site based on desirable demographics (population, income, shopping habits), then a whole bunch of reporters would be hired at once and handed a town.

Emmanuel students, did you know there’s a Patch just for the Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood? Anyone?

Patch lost somewhere between $200 and $300 million for AOL, depending on which story you’re reading. Here’s a Forbes story on why it failed. Here’s a Romenesko post on Patch’s “zombie” sites. Here are many, many stories from Business Insider spanning years of Patch coverage.

What’s the difference between a hyperlocal site that works and ones that don’t?

  • Local ownership. An editor in Massachusetts should not be arguing with someone in New York that, yes, people in her towns actually DO care about football games on Thanksgiving and her readers really DO want photos of a Memorial Day parade. (Sorry. Venting.)
  • A reasonable expectation of profit. No one is going to get rich off a community site. No readers are willing to pay for it, advertisers may be slow to understand it and salespeople may not accept the smaller commission from selling a bunch of little ads versus larger accounts.
  • A community voice. You can’t open a site and expect people to contribute to it right away. The site editor has to lead them. The illusion of being everywhere at once, I found, led to many people sending me photos, stories and calendar items on their own — I’d established myself as an expert, and they were possibly afraid I was going to drop dead from exhaustion.
  • Good social media and a website that’s Google-friendly. Word-of-mouth works. Word-of-Internet is even better.
  • It doesn’t cause stories like this one.

This is getting longer than I planned, but here are some examples of some sites that are succeeding or or their way to doing so:

  • The Batavian. You really can’t talk about hyperlocal without mentioning it. I’m expecting Howard Owens to pop up any second to opine “Local doesn’t scale.”
  • The New Haven Independent. Dan Kennedy has written extensively about it on Media Nation — heck, he even wrote a book.
  • Nancy on Norwalk. The Nancy in this case is Nancy Chapman, a former colleague, and her beat is Norwalk, Conn.
  • The Grafton Villager. Richard Price picked up the baton in Grafton after the Daily Voice shut us down.
  • I will throw in one more created by someone who does NOT have a journalism background — Upton Daily, another site created after the Daily Voice shutdown. Jennifer Doyle, a friend since high school, nagged me for years to open an Upton news site. She was stubborn enough to do it on her own after the three-month-old Upton Daily Voice was shuttered.
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This entry was posted on January 26, 2014 by in Journalism and tagged , , .

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