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!

9 Responses to "Finally: the answer to hyper-local coverage"

  1. Mark Potts
    Mark Potts 9 years ago .Reply

    Steve:
    I really must beg to differ. In a sense, you’re basing a large part of your thesis on one person’s comments–a renter who’s basically transient in a neighborhood and has very limited local interests. Believe me, people who spend a long period of time in a community, have kids in the schools, pay local taxes, maybe own property, maybe work very close by, care incredibly deeply about the stuff you’re writing off as “boring.” (The success of traditional community newspapers proves this, incidentally.) And the Holovaty-style data you’re touting, while interesting and part of the answer, is hardly a full diet–do you really want to spend all your time reading home-sale listings and crime reports?

    Hyperlocal information is utterly personal—it’s impossible to judge the quality or importance of it if you don’t live in and have an attachment to the community. But more importantly, the answer to the hyperlocal question is “all of the above”: professional content, user-generated content, forums, social tools, data, maps, photos, videos, business listings, reviews, “scraped” existing content, blogs, ads from local businesses, etc. Put it all together, with a strong business plan and marketing, and you’ve got something. But don’t dismiss it because some transient resident can’t get excited about anything more than where to walk his dog.

  2. Robb Montgomery
    Robb Montgomery 9 years ago .Reply

    Steve,

    Greetings from Naperville, The second largest city in Illinois and not part of Adrian’s Everyblock database. We are located right next to Aurora, the third largest city in the state. A 30 minute train ride into Chicago’s Union station . . .

    EveryBlock has just expanded to Charlotte and Philly but if the model they have developed ignores the suburbs (You know where the majority of the population of the Greater Chicago Area lives and sleeps) then this model under serves and under delivers on the hyper-local potential largely because it ignores the data and social structures that exist in the real world. that is, the real world network of city and suburbs. How much richer it could be if Everyblock indeed covered every block.

    That’s a pretty large missing link of data to fill in. And it must be a lot harder for Adrian to deliver than picking the low hanging fruit of data that serves only a big city core.

    “TBall” by the way is known to us in the Visual Editors community as Tim Ball. Tim has worked as a San Jose Mercury News visual editor and some other newsrooms in the midwest and Asia in his career.

    He lists his dudernet blog in his VizEds profile

    http://visualeditors.ning.com/profile/TimBall

  3. Adrian Holovaty
    Adrian Holovaty 9 years ago .Reply

    Mark Potts: I don’t want to spend “all my time” reading home-sale listings and crime reports any more than I spend “all my time” reading journalism blogs, the newspaper, or whatever else. But I’d certainly spend *some* of my time on it! :-)

    I agree that EveryBlock does not provide a “full diet,” and I’d challenge you to provide an example of a Web site that *does*. We do one thing and do it pretty well; other sites do other things and do them well. The need to provide a “full diet” of all information a person would ever want is a flawed idea. Go to Google for search, go to Amazon to buy things, go to EveryBlock for information about what’s happened around your address recently, go to the Chicago Sun-Times for information about what’s happened more generally in the city recently.

    I agree with you, though, with your assessment of the transient. :-)

    Robb Montgomery: As a person who grew up in Naperville and now lives in Chicago, I sympathize with your jealousy of the city!

    No, just joshin’. Bit of a joke there.

    But, really, put yourself in our shoes: with limited resources, we simply get more bang for our buck by covering Philadelphia instead of Naperville, given it takes the same general amount of work.

  4. Derek Scruggs
    Derek Scruggs 9 years ago .Reply

    Mark, I qualify as one of those people who’s lived here a long time — and I still subscribe to and read the paper every day — but I’d say most of that stuff is pretty boring. And even when it’s interesting — like the adverse possession case a few months back — the paper basically only allows interaction via comments on web site articles.

    Conversely, a friend of mine started a discussion list for the SoBo area where I live and I read it every day. In an effort to attract members, she posted a note about it on a Daily Camera list and also on the Rocky Mountain Internet Users’ Group list. Bottom line, she got WAY more subscribers from the RMIUG list than the Camera.

    In other words, she connected to people via where they are today, not where the papers like to think they are. It would’ve been trivial for someone at the Camera to do the same thing and likely with similar results… but they didn’t.

    To succeed at this, newspapers need to hire not just journalists and circulation managers, but people who “get” where the community lives online and are naturally attuned to the best ways to find them.

    BTW my friend is a prolific writer in her forties who’s a columnist for BusinessWeek online. It doesn’t have to be a twenty-somethings who spend all their time on Facebook.

    That email list, BTW, is way more conducive to discussing things like adverse possession than comments on newspaper articles.

  5. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 9 years ago .Reply

    Re: Everyblock. What Adrian is doing is creating technology for accessing and parsing public databases in any community. That he’s doing it in a few big cities means little, because it’s testing out the concept that eventually will spread when he releases Everyblock to open source for all to use. If newspaper publishers don’t understand the importance of what he’s doing, boy are they out to lunch!

  6. Robb Montgomery
    Robb Montgomery 9 years ago .Reply

    Come back to the promised land, Adrian. RibFest is happening and it smells great!

  7. Loren Omoto
    Loren Omoto 9 years ago .Reply

    Hello from Tampa – unofficial capital of the State of Transience. Even in this environment of uncommunity, there is a case to be made for hyperlocalism.

    Everyblock is a brilliant solution, but only a piece of the puzzle. Hyperlocal will make sense and gain traction for publishers only when they include the kind of interactivity that Derek mentions.

    It’s disheartening, but logical, that so many of the most vibrant discussions mentioned here are happening via Usenet/listserv. By their very nature, those channels are self-selecting and exclusive to the technorati.

    The MSM need to integrate focused, personal conversation as a core function…data alone isn’t enough, and the social web has outmoded one-way communication.

    Ironically, the biggest challenge for the big player may be outreach: We need to create an environment and adopt tools that support local communities — then go F2F to make the case that they matter to us. That’s unfamiliar territory for most newspapers and journos.

    The reason grassroots hyperlocal solutions have arisen is that newspapers historically have approached neighborhoods with the same attitude they’ve had toward foreign coverage: Hit the high notes, gloss over the details and assume the audience will be grateful that you’re there at all.

    The community is smarter than that. In a hyperlocal world, newspapers must engage neighborhoods, block by block, take the mission seriously and keep up their end of the conversation.

  8. Rick Waghorn
    Rick Waghorn 9 years ago .Reply

    Steve,

    I think you’re heading in the right direction; personalisation meets localisation and you get EveryBlock with a cherry on top…

    http://outwithabang.rickwaghorn.co.uk/?p=93

    Which is why we’re busily concentrating our thoughts on http://www.mylocalwriter.com over here..

    All the best, etc

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