Finally: the answer to hyper-local coverage

By Steve Outing

OK, I think I get it now. I feel like I understand what newspapers need to do. I wrote up some of this in my latest Editor & Publisher Online column, but subsequent to that I also ran across a significant blog entry from Dudernet: “Newspapers and why I’ve tired of reading (most of) them.” That blog is by “tball”; I have no idea who that is, but he/she works at a Tribune Co. newspaper and appears to blog anonymously.

The blog item discusses something that’s been bugging me for a while. Most newspapers are focusing on local news, since national and international coverage is a commodity online and they need to focus on what they can do best, and that’s local coverage. But the trouble is, for many people, local news is boring and not relevant to them. And hyper-local (aka, local-local) is even more so.

This is especially so for people who don’t have strong ties to the community in which they live. The U.S., especially, is a transitory society; people move around a lot for jobs, school, and other reasons, and they don’t always feel strongly attached to where they live. Lots of folks are more interested in niche topics and national events than local politics and local news headlines, or they want local news from where they’re from originally. These people are especially unimpressed by coverage of city council meetings and other mundane local happenings in the town or city where they live. It’s the people who don’t move around — who still live in the town where they grew up — that are appreciative of good local coverage.

Here’s a great excerpt from someone (“mccxxiii”) who commented on tball’s post. (This is good stuff.)

“I am fairly young, single, no kids, and no extended family in the large city where I live. I rent because I could never afford to buy here, and I’ll leave in the next couple of years because of it.

“I am concerned with exactly two items of ‘local news’ … when is the dog park in my neighborhood opening, and are there any train delays this morning. I get both of those things more quickly and efficiently from a source other than my local paper. (Dog park project listserv and text message alerts from the train people.)

“It pains me to say that, because I was a newspaper reporter for nearly a decade, and I like nothing more than to settle in for a good read with a bagel and juice in the morning. But pages upon pages of city council minutiae and youth baseball coverage say nothing to me except goodbye. Everything I read about ‘how to save newspapers’ includes the idea of hyper-local, but I can’t think of a better way to turn me OFF.”

Brilliant! This person is pointing you to the way to make hyper-local relevant.

If it’s not obvious to you, the local newspaper serving this individual should be the one serving up the information from the dog park listserv. And the train delays. That it’s not doing that, and is leaving it to others, is major oversight.

To see what newspapers must do to do hyper-local right, look to Adrian Holovaty’s Everyblock.com, which digs out and filters real estate listings, crime, government data, news articles, blog entries, and a bunch of other stuff down to the city-block level. That’s stuff that reaches people at a personal level: the crime that happened 2 blocks from my house; the house that sold down the street, and for how much; the bus route change that affects the bus stop I use; etc.

Local newspapers need to figure out how to find the data and information like train delays and dog-park news, then deliver it to the people who care about it. That is the “hyper-local news” that will allow newspapers to renew themselves as important in people’s lives. Right now if you want to find out about train delays, you probably go directly to the train operator’s website; if you don’t know about that site, you go to Google and Google points you to the train schedule page. Local newspapers need to become known as the place to go for the hyper-local information and news that YOU want.

I think this will require several components to pull off:

  1. Technology to automate some of the process of combing through public databases and information sources to find all the relevant hyper-local data and news that people within your community might care about. Every newspaper will want to be able to do what Everyblock.com is doing. (Holovaty will release the open-source code to Everyblock when his 2-year Knight Foundation grant period is over.)
  2. Staffing at the newspaper that is constantly finding new sources of information, news, and data to feed into the system. These editorial workers should be not only looking for every local source of information to tap, but also finding out from readers and users what they want. “mccxxiii” said he/she wants dog-park news and train-delay schedules. What else do people want and need? Can you get it for them?
  3. Personalization features for your website that allow users to specify what they want to know and how to receive it. The default may be news and other stuff that happens within a user-defined radius of a users’ home and/or office address. But the user also should be able to specify custom stuff that they want, such as news alerts about the new dog park. And of course they should be able to choose to receive news and information about topics of interest (e.g., stuff about the local rock climbing scene) that is not tied to a mapped area around their location.
  4. Facebook-like features that let a newspaper’s readers what’s going on with their friends, a la Facebook’s Newsfeed. Reinventing Newsfeed-like functionality for a newspaper site may not make much sense, while tapping into Facebook on behalf of your users might.

None of this is meant to suggest that local news isn’t important. It is, and people really do care about significant news that happens in their communities. But when it comes to stuff that’s deeper into the community and of interest only to a small segment, there is a danger with hyper-local of boring your audience. Location, location, location is the Realtor’s mantra; I’m thinking that personalization, personalization, personalization should be local newspaper website editors’ mantra now.

I hope no one reads into this that I am not a believer in hyper-local. To the contrary, I’m a big fan, but I think that for it to gain an appreciative audience — and for it to turn into a business — we need to add the elements that I describe above.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!