Tag a site hyperlocal and it’s doomed

The problem with creating a hyperlocal site is once you call it that, it’s doomed. Doomed to be irrelevant. Doomed to be ignored? Doomed to be abhorred by advertisers.

That’s my spin on a topic posed by Andy Dickinson in this month’s Carnival of Journalism.

His question for all the carnival writers was roughly around whether we would have accept the fact that local journalism doesn’t pay. I decided to address ideas on how to make hyperlocal or community journalism viable.

The history of hyperlocal site has many well-traveled journeys that came up short and many others that were lost before ever receiving hype.  It doesn’t take a lot of searching to find these listless ghost ships in the night.

They, in a word, weren’t LOVED.

If I had the formula for winning with hyperlocal content, or the equally dreadful phrase “community news” sites, I doubt I’d be writing this. I’d be too busy selling it. Every local publisher wants it and global players like Google and Yahoo want to conquer local as the last frontier.

Everybody wants a great site that dives deep, deep into local, but nobody is getting “9’s” when the judges hold up the scorecards  As a niche, is there something peculiarly wrong with local?

Nothing more than it being hard to do well, really hard. Magic sites of user generated content (build them and they will come) turned out to be another in a long line of perpetual motion proposals. Oh, but the drawings (business plans) did look wonderful

But while the well-funded efforts have mostly been failures, or more charitably, lack-luster performers, you can find in nearly every community, someone, who, without the benefit of capital budgets, marketing staffs and stock-option plans, has created a site that people recommend to others or that generates backyard buzz.

Let’s leave the magic behind and look at what good old-fashioned long hours, hard work and sharp pencils  have to offer. In addition to individuals who have created wonderful local online presences, there are numerous shoppers, weeklies, and small dailies that are darned successful in print. Well-read, attracting advertisers and profitable. There is quality evidence that there is both audience and advertisers for local news and infrormation.

Short of answers, I do have suggestions on what is needed to create a site focused on the small geographical areas known as local communities.

  • Find someone passionate about covering a community to lead it. Knowing and being engaged in a community is key. If the readers know more about the community than the writers, what is the value? Remember, Craig Newmark still handles customer service issues daily on craigslist. That’s passion for the product and the users.
  • Build standalone sites instead of a portal or umbrella site. A portal almost guarantees the site, and those who run it, aren’t focused. You can develop strategies to sell advertising across a group and maybe group them, but first convince me you’re an expert and definitive source for my area. Gawker Media, with its stable of content niche sites, might be a model of how to develop a stable of geographically focused sites.
  • Keep expenses low. Standard blog software might be all the CMS you need. TMZ.com, in a sense, covers a “community.”
  • It takes professionals. It has to be someone’s job to make a great site. Have a voice. Have a point of view. Bring knowledge of the community to provide perspective and insight.
  • It’s a news site, not a community album. If there’s news in your niche, no one else should have it first.  
  • Use user generated content to supplement and enrich, but don’t build the whole strategy on it. Be generous in linking out to the content of others.
  • Market it. This will mean speaking at clubs, posting fliers, waving the flag at community events. It’s not a TV campaign, you’re serving a small niche. This is ground level, door-to-door winning customers.
  • Set goals, assess brutally; refine incessantly. Develop measures to find out what’s being read and if it’s effective for advertisers. If it clearly is not working, shut it down and try another area with your learnings.
  • Consider thinking beyond geographic communities. Place may not be as compelling a magnet as Interests. Sites could be developed around youth baseball or soccer, local genealogy or for local history buffs.

That’s my thought-starter list. Do you have others to add?  Add them in the comments or start a conversation elsewhere.

This posting is part of the June Carnival of Journalism. This month’s carnival is hosted here. Read them all.

4 Replies to “Tag a site hyperlocal and it’s doomed”

  1. Great post, Jack. As Debbie Galant of Baristanet recently pointed out to me, “Maybe it’s not about parachuting in … maybe hyperlocal is truly the province of the hyperlocal. The people who live there.” If we don’t do this right, in all the ways you list here, it’ll never work.

  2. @Casey
    I agree that Randy Neal has had (and hopefully will continue to have) remarkable success with knoxviews. One of the many things I like about this area is that it has a host of just kick-ass digital efforts going on and surely his is one of those.
    I disagree with your take that hyerlocal can’t be all political. I would say it doesn’t have to be politically or government focused. I think knoxviews is an example of a site that has sliced local to a very focused niche (Knoxville politics and public affairs from a progressive viewpoint) and has become “the” category expert. That’s very hyperlocal to me. It may not be “community” in the sense that you wrote about, but certainly his site(s) are a vibrant community. I think he might be one to agree with my “hard work” part of the equation because he has worked at it very hard in a labor of love..
    Suzy Trotta is doing great hyperlocal real estate coverage. She is one of the better examples locally of marketing and developing a personal brand through providing useful information. Instead of just doing see my listings or pick me to be your real estate agent, she’s building credibility, for example, through writing about foreclosure and home sale trends. Great Stuff. Josh Flory is doing similar hyperlocal niche reporting on commercial real estate. Both meet my test of telling me things I didn’t know and find interesting.
    One disclaimer. These sites may be doing hyperlocal information, but they are not hyperlocal sites because if they were, well, they’d be doomed. 🙂

  3. @jJohn
    Not “parachuting in” is a great way to look at it. Certainly newcomers can add fresh perspectives, but to be successful, I think you have to have at least one “category expert.” In the case of geographical communities, that would be someone who has lived and breathed the area and is passionate about life there. A lot of mainstream media “community news” is written by people who have no clue about the communities they are writing about. They haven’t lived their very long and rarely “have time” to get out the office and really find out about it; And people wonder why information based on that doesn’t seem to resonant?

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