Update: Other hyperlocal-related posts here.
My Reason #1 was the trash factor. But many readers have other, less friendly explanations. More than a few trust the press about as much as they do HMOs, banks and big business in general. For some, the local daily might as well be a giant paper Pinocchio. Just this week, a futurist was saying that newspapers would be irrelevant in 12 years, thanks to such practices as Web-based crowd-sourcing. Wish fulfillment for many readers?
Hyperlocal journalism, however, could at least help the Washington Post and other established news organizations regain trust by growing closer to their communities with good, verifiable content and opportunities for readers to speak back. Ideally it could grow revenues, too. In the era of Google News and stories from thousands of sources, all over the planet, why not focus on compelling local stories? Why not encourage neighbors to care about neighbors, not just about distant—in more than one sense of the word—politicians and movie stars? Already flagship newspapers reel in a mere 56 percent of the readerships of certain major metropolitan media companies, perhaps partly reflecting hyperlocal’s growing importance.
But how to do hyperlocal properly and maximize synergies between it and other activities within a newspaper company or broadcasting one, while reducing redundancies? Ahead I’ll share my specific ideas with established news organizations in mind, following up on earlier hyperlocal suggestions for them. My biggest goal for this series is to lay out hyperlocal strategy options for everyone, not favor the giants; and, in fact, The Solomon Scandals novel features a large, colorfully dysfunctional newspaper. The big guys and media monopolies in particular—even and especially in small towns—have their sins, including a fixation in some cases on lucre at the expense of journalistic quality. Gordon Gekko would be proud.
Still, “big” has its glories, too. Well-financed chain papers, for example, with the right people in charge, can better resist neighborhood car dealers enraged by localized stories about safety recalls. That’s not all. Often—it’s hard to generalize—the very best hyperlocal journalism can’t happen for long periods of time on the cheap. And even the most gung-ho of the small-fry stand a good chance of burning out eventually.
I recently sold a small e-book Web site, which, although focused on a topic-related community, not a geo-based one, beset me with many of the challenges described here.
TeleRead by itself did not give me a coronary, forcing me to undergo open heart surgery and the related pneumonia; heredity was the real villain. But with a virtual maw for me to feed again and again with new posts, as if I were sending out wire service bulletins, the blog did not help. I also wrote comments below the posts in response to readers’ own; I wanted to mix, not just report and opine from above. Talk about burnout risks of the kind that will face conscientious operators of independent hyperlocal sites!
Done well, Net-based journalism is far more labor intensive than the traditional variety—potentially a major advantage for big, patient corporations willing to invest sufficient money in local news-gathering efforts to create Buffett-style moats between them and upstarts. Ideally we’ll end up with a mix of both little guys (gutsier and more vibrant as a group) and big media (see above), not just the former.
Here in the Washington, D.C., area, hyperlocal is heating up, and some good-sized new organizations are in the thick of the fray. Allbritton Communications, owner of WJLA-TV and a local cable news channel, among other properties, has just replaced the related D.C.-area sites with TBD.com, which has positioned itself as a hyperlocal source. Significantly, by way of a network of local bloggers, TBD is striving to meld the big corporate model with the bloggers’ small-scale new media alternatives.
Meanwhile the AOL-owned Patch network has fired up highly geo-focused sites for some Virginia and Maryland suburbs while aiming to emulate the leanness of start-ups (excessively so, some may argue based on “sweatshop” allegations from outside the D.C. area). The Washington Examiner, given its corporate connections with the Examiner.com blog network, may well try to become a major hyperlocal outlet. If Yahoo succeeds in San Francisco, it, too, may be a D.C.-area player eventually. The Washington Post, despite its hyperlocal failure in Loudon County, hasn’t kissed off hyperlocal forever. And a good thing, too. The Kaplan, Inc., education subsidiary, going by a recent earnings warning from the parent Washington Post Company, may not be the same fat cash cow in the future.
But how can the Post newspaper once again be truly lucrative? Why should I pay full attention to the current Post when, as I observed earlier in this hyperlocal series, its local coverage is far from comprehensive? And when a national source like the New York Times provides me with more thorough and better organized news from outside the D.C. area? Didn’t the Post recently shut down national bureaus? Was this done partly to free up more money for local coverage? If so, we have yet to see dramatic results.
Disjointed coverage of local events, a burglary here, a bake sale there, an eventful city council or school board meeting here, served up with high school sports coverage, shouldn’t cut it for the Post or other top-tier companies. Nor should the slapdash creation of community bulletin boards even at the neighborhood level. The Topix aggregator’s local news page for Alexandria, VA, mixes serous items with such gems as “Jake T. Austin is my cousin and single”—and the related speculation on the actor’s sex life. Instead of Topix-style chaos, hyperlocal coverage should systematically help neighbors connect with each other on topics ranging from traffic lights to shared hobbies and other interests. It should cover government in context and provide ways for members of this community to act. And within the bounds of fairness and commonsense, standalone hyperlocal sites should reflect the voices of individual communities, as opposed to the usual detached approach that characterizes so much of traditional journalism today.
Do all of the above well, adjust in other ways to the technology, and the sites of established news organizations will be cherished community gathering places and civic tools.
The bottom line might well reflect this eventually. The closer newspapers get to their readers, the more effective they’ll be as advertising tools and as platforms for e-stores of their own. They can more precisely target ads, if nothing else; and established news organizations can use their size or prestige to deal more effectively with national advertisers for hyperlocal sites than independents can, even with the help of ad networks.
If you’re still unsure about the H term itself, just check out Sarah Hartley’s useful list, 10 characteristics of hyperlocal (e.g., community participation and “opinion mixed with fact”), which overlaps heavily but not completely with the points I’ve made earlier in this series on local journalism. She says that ‘tude matters even more than the idea of close geo focus in defining hyperlocal. Exactly (although I still would associate the word with coverage of neighborhoods or small cities). Steve Yelvington on the other hand says “hyperlocal no longer means anything”; and, in fact, in the Nieman Journalism Lab blog, Mark Coddington writes that “Hartley may be describing the overarching blogging ethos more so than hyperlocal news per se."
Respectfully and emphatically, I’d disagree and side with Sarah Hartley instead. It isn’t just the focus on reader contributions and other participation. For example, with a smaller geographical area covered, as opposed to an entire metro area with widely divergent interests, a hyperlocal site can better blend news and some opinion in the spirit of the blogging world. A mistake of the Patch hyperlocal network owned by America Online is that despite opinion columns, its sites read too much like standard newspapers without quite all the quirks and well-expressed views of independent hyperlocal sites that serve as true community advocates. Patch has many fine points and talented people. But ideally large news organizations will mitigate their habitual caution and allow the wit and feeling that some Patch editors might feel obliged to confine to items labeled as opinion.
Yes, let’s strive for dispassionate coverage of, say, routine city council meetings, with commentary elsewhere on the hyperlocal sites, including the reader-supplied kind. But if a nuclear dump wants to set up shop, I want to see opinions at least hinted in the main story on a hyperlocal site, conventional journalism be damned—just as Ms. Hartley might (as long as the writer sticks to the facts, avoids hyperbole and isn’t too obnoxious in giving the article a viewpoint). Do you prefer that your cancer surgeon tell you in a flat, emotionless voice that you’ve got three weeks to live? Most patients wouldn’t. That’s an extreme example; but the same principle applies if readers are to regard hyperlocal sites as special rather than just as miniaturized versions of the daily newspapers that so many of them hate.
Here, now, are further ideas for established news organizations hoping to go hyperlocal in the Hartley sense, as opposed to the more conventional Patch one.
#1: The dashboard approach: Persistence and focus on the most relevant and important issues with actionable information
Just across I-395 from me here in Alexandria, VA, the U.S. military is putting up a high-rise where 6,400+ people will work. To his credit, the local congress member, Jim Moran, is warning against the gargantuan traffic jams that could ensue. For people in my neighborhood, this is or ought to be a major issue, and in fact, via the Topix aggregation service, I can read the details from Federal Times. What’s more, a Google search shows that the Washington Post has hardly ignored the case, nor has the Washington Examiner.
Why, then, as a reader of Washingtonpost.com and now of Allbritton’s TBD hyperlocal site, do I find that the day-to-day details of this controversy are slipping by me?
Because the Post and TBD have yet to implement what some might call the dashboard concept—where you don’t just see today’s headlines but also reminders of ongoing issues like the Mark Center one, beautifully displayed with snappy graphics. Also, you learn how you can register your thoughts with local officials, no matter how you feel. We don’t just need hyperlocal news; we need the actionable variety. In fact, even “actionable” isn’t enough by itself. The news has to be well enough packaged and include the right links for citizens to act efficiently in their spare time, a rare commodity in this era when work schedules for many Americans have ballooned.
Among some in the D.C.-area journalistic elite, the TBD hyperlocal site is understandably a great hope of the day, along with the Patch network, which around here is still confined to a few communities. TBD is less than a month old. For me as a reader, it won’t have truly “arrived” until I can regularly track the Mark Center question, about which the site has carried no news that I’m aware of.
Instead, even with my TBD cookie set to favor news in the 22304, supposedly, I’ve learned far more than I want to know about the D.C. city council and mayoral races. As a brand-new site, TBD is still a long way from the vision I put forth in How TBD could use hyperlocal journalism to kick the Washington Post’s butt, just as the Post itself has yet to reflect the ideas in How Washington Post and New York Times could outgun local sites like TBD and Baristanet.
At least for now—this could change—the Post almost surely has the resources to execute my dashboard vision. How about TBD? I don’t know all the details about TBD as it’s now budgeted, or about Patch or the Washington Examiner. But even with backing from other parts of Allbritton Communications, TBD’s dozen or so reporters are not enough. In TBD’s place, I would team up sooner rather than later with the Patch. Mutual investments, and perhaps even a full or partial buyout in either direction, not just friendly link exchanges, are I’d suggest.
Although the Washington Post is behind TBD in doing hyperlocal news, now that LoudonExtra is dead, the Post may be slowly headed toward the hyperlocal dashboard concept even without realizing it. As a start, I like the Post’s Community Handbook series, as well as the Where We Live articles about specific neighborhoods. Ideally this could be blended into the dashboard, while presenting the same information elsewhere for home-shoppers in an online real estate section.
Whether the topic is garbage collection or neighborhood history or real estate assessments, the dashboard concept could lead readers to the most relevant facts and opinions on important city and neighborhood issues and relate the old and the new.
For example, a hyperlocal story on garbage collection issues could link to one about a rodent problem, which in turn could link to forum discussions and related essays by citizens (in the era of the Net, shouldn’t news organizations augment or replace highly condensed letters to the editor with a chance for citizens to express themselves in depth?). If garbage collection was an issue in the last election, I want to see a link to the incumbent’s past promises and city council votes on that topic. Readers need to be able to find the right city council members to ask, “Why did you vote to reduce the budget of the Department of Sanitation? What about the rat problem and the cutbacks in garbage pickups on my block?”
TBD’s Fact Machine is wonderful and should be preserved and even cherished, but it’s a hit-and-run kind of approach compared to the specifics I have in mind. Don’t just use existing and potential political controversies as a starting points to examine the issues. Instead determine what the biggest local and hyperlocal issues are, with input from readers through forums and otherwise—and take it from there in holding politicians accountable. Lead, don’t just follow. The Fact Machine, as laudable as it is, has its priorities backwards, perhaps unavoidably because of TBD’s current lack of sufficient resources. In the past, while discussing the Washington Post, I suggested a slim hyperlocal operation; now, with TBD doing Hyperlocal Lite—very Lite due to insufficient resources—I’d suggest more.
#2: Sufficient attention paid to the “hyper”—the most local
I’d like to be able to make Alexandria news get better play from TBD’s Web site on my screen than it does right now. That’s the big example of the moment. The home page of the existing TBD site is still more metro than hyperlocal regardless of the present customization options (via a log-in and a cookie) and the community and county pages tucked inside it. With the limited localization, I feel as if I’m simply reading a 20- or 30-something’s version of the Washington Post metro section. The Patch network, where affiliates exist, does a much better job of giving us the “hyper.”
TBD’s people will undoubtedly offer more Alexandria news and play it up better as the site matures and irons out the technical wrinkles, but for now I see major room for progress. People want hyperlocal to live up to its name. The Washington Post’s hyperlocal effort in Loudoun County failed in part because LoudounExtra failed to sufficiently appreciate differences among neighborhoods within the county.
You can’t just go by the number of local or hyperlocal stories. How about their quality and their relevance, be it geo-based or otherwise? What a laugh is the first item in the TBD “Near you” section on the site’s home page (as I’m typing this out)! Here I am in the 22304 ZIP code and the headline reads “Thomas Jefferson High gears up for another flurry of applications.” Students from the city of Alexandria can’t even apply to TJ. Wouldn’t Alexandria residents be better off with school-related item from their own city played up? Perhaps TBD’s response would be, “Well, that was the latest news at time.” But for me in Alexandria, even if I’d had children in school, the TJ item was useless noise.
As for news at the neighborhood level—the hyper-est of hyperlocal—forget it. TBD at the moment is serving me no better in that respect than the Washington Post does. I don’t see news items picked out from my part of the 22304 code. If nothing else, maybe TBD can experiment with neighborhood mailing lists moderated by part-timers.
#3: Hyperlocalization blended in well with the big show
So far, however, I know of no major metropolitan daily or TV news with the extent of hyperlocal integration I envision for the home page. I like the Chicago Tribune’s inclusion of a “Your Town” section on the home page, though. Also good is the “Your Town” link at the top of the page. The moment you move your cursor over the link you can see choices ranging from “Chicagoland“ (metro) to “Joliet” and “Oak Park.” Even if the D.C. area has more suburbs than does the Chicago area—I haven’t compared—I can envision a full page popping up with all the choices. This would be a good cut-to-the-chase approach rather than forcing readers to drill through regional or state news first, the way the Washington Post and countless other newspapers do. So would the “Your Town Section” on the Post home page itself. However, I’d regard that as just a start.
When I call up Washingtonpost.com or an equivalent, I’d actually like to be able to see the dashboard on the home page—not just farmed out separately to another page (even though the “inside” page could carry a more elaborate version of the dashboard).
There’s another form of integration I would suggest. Why not have Post staffers at the metro level focus just a little more on area-wide trends and just a little less on individual events—which the hyperlocal side of the news organization could then play up?
Say, the story was the desire of the babyboomers to remain at home, to “retire in place.” A reporter specializing in social issues could assemble the master story from the writings of hyperlocal staffersin individual cities, who then could run their own detailed reports when the master story appeared. The subject and geo-oriented approaches could complement each other. Last year the Washington Post replaced the Virginia, Maryland and D.C. desks with subject groups in such areas as social issues, education, police and courts, and government. So hyperlocal would actually be one way to let the geo side of the equation catch up.
#4: Understanding of differences among communities, empowering hyperlocal editors and letting them reflect the variations
A hyperlocal site serving at the upper-middle class on New York City’s Upper West Side might make a mild joke about a truffles shop and the gentrification ahead from people still richer. Conversely, with a trendy readership in love with upscale novelties, the Georgetown Dish might welcome the same kind of establishment.
This is a major difference, as I see it, between local—or at least metro—and hyperlocal. You aren’t writing for an entire region with varying income levels and lifestyles. No, there’s often a dominant or near-dominant kind of reader in a specific neighborhood or even a small town. Granted, even at the hyperlocal level, readers’ lifestyles may vary. But the best hyperlocal organizations will identify and appeal to this core readership. In New Jersey, for example, Baristanet has zeroed in on upper-middle-class women with limited time but an eagerness to participate in local life. I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar approach worked in the D.C. area. Like some others, even Mark Potts, whose GrowthSpur company is supplying business-related advice to interested bloggers in the TBD network, I’d suggest that TBD worry less about hip young readers in Washington and near-by suburbs, and more about Baristanet-type housewives in Montgomery, Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, even if it costs more to reach out for real to the suburbs.
But what to do about Washingtonpost.com-style sites if hyperlocal offshoots of the Post, or affiliates, are writing in the voices of Loudon County and, at the opposite end of the income scale, the Anacostia neighborhood in D.C.? The solution would be either to edit and rewrite or perhaps to use the hyperlocal sites as tipsters rather than direct content-providers in those cases. Or perhaps, along with the use of editing and rewriting, the more opinionated postings could be run on the main sites as labeled opinions rather than as news. In a sense this would be a partial reversion back to the day before newspapers started striving for “objectivity.” The new word might instead be “fairness,” with readers given ample opportunities to publish rebuttals of any length, not just pathetic little letters to the editor. Per word, hard drive space is much cheaper than newsprint.
One way or another the Post needs to encourage genuine community-style sites—reflecting divergent interests and viewpoints, both among sites and within their respective collections of readers—rather than expecting everyone to toe an official line.
The good news is that Post sections like Style and Outlook, at least in the past, have competed fiercely with each other under strong-willed editors with different ways of seeing the world. So the precedents are there. The test for Post Company CEO Donald Graham and Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth will be whether the company appoints hyperlocal editors willing to reflect the interests of their communities, as opposed to Post corporate interests or even metro-level interests. Let hyperlocal be hyperlocal. Imagine the trust-building effect of this, as opposed to a top-down approach. As I see it, readers are less interested in across-the-board corporate consistency than in diversity of opinions and the related tolerance.
Significantly, lines between news and opinion can blur among among the best intentioned journalists; and hyperlocal and blogging have a role to play here.
I remember when I revealed in the Connecticut newspapers that a powerful senator had held a secret investment in a CIA-occupied building in Arlington, VA, through a “blind trust” despite a flat prohibition against this kind of thing in the language of the government lease and despite his past assurances that he had no such conflict of interest. Following re-electon, the late Abraham Ribicoff had sold his share under circumstances about which he was adamantly vague. But he retained investments with the same business people, in nongovernment properties, even though he sat on a committee overseeing the General Services Administration, the agency leasing the building for the CIA.
Not a word appeared in the Post or any other Washington daily. Because of advertising concerns? Friendships with the senator or the main owners of the building? The Not Invented Here Syndrome? Mere differences of news judgment? Who knows? But a Pulitzer Prize winner vetted the story and used it on the NBC Nightly News and in the New Republic.
To this day I wonder how the Ribicoff story would have fared in an era of blogging and hyperlocal journalism, with a seasoned editor of a Post neighborhood offshoot given freedom to print the facts about the senator even if the bosses downtown disagreed, just so the facts were facts. Would this hyperlocal editor in Arlington have ignored such an important story in his or her backyard? The federal government office leasing program helped transform huge stretches of Arlington. We’re talking about local, not just national, history. Outside the Post empire, might TBD have linked to the Ribicoff information from a trusted local blogger, regardless of whether or not the Post’s hyperlocal extension in Arlington saw news value here?
In the end, for the Washington Post and similar organizations, the choice boils down to this. What is more important—Post-style centralization or community trust and the greater profitability it can bring about in the long run? Maybe we can find a little hope in Post’s inter-section rivalries and even in the fact that a Pulitzer-winning editor punched out a feature writer in the newsroom; perhaps the newspaper and offshoots can flourish in the hyperlocal era by being less predictable, less buttoned down. In defining hyperlocal or at least describing existing hyperlocal, Ms. Hartley writes that "The publishers of these sites tend to pride themselves on being independent and see not being answerable to a mainstream organisation meaning they’re able to be more responsive to their community." Can the Post change enough for this to happen?
Granted, that’s expecting a lot from Katharine Weymouth, a product of Harvard, Oxford and Stanford, who seems more comfortable with salon-type entertaining than on the streets; but then consider the transformation that her grandmother underwent from a housewife to, in time, the Watergate-era publisher of the Post. The hyperlocal wars lack the drama of the epic fight with Nixon. But if Ms. Weymouth wants to show her seriousness as a publisher, then she could do worse than to preside over a genuine reinvention of the Post, going far beyond the basic ongoing shift from newsprint to digital. Consider the stakes here. "Katharine," the Washingtonian has quoted Walter Pincus, a long-time Post journalist, "has to face what Don never faced—survival.”
#5: Participation in both directions—by the journalists and by the communities
Connected with Point #4, and likewise contradicting 20th century American journalism’s tradition of detachment, hyperlocal journalists need to participate in the communities they write about.
If nothing else, that means living in those places or at least very close to them and shopping at the same stores and otherwise sharing experiences with the people covered. In an area like Anacostia—who says hyperlocal journalism is just for affluent, Baristanet-style communities?—two-way participation might even mean organizing an anti-slum campaign or at least going out of a site’s way to give it prominent coverage.
How you can expect community members to participate in your venture, by reading you or writing for you, if you don’t care about them. On her list, Sarah Hartley plays up the participation factor, and she is right. One hyperlocal journalist says his counterparts should care as much about the writing of Saul Alinsky (photo), the community organizer, as about The Elements of Style. Absolutely. This is what TBD has grasped so brilliantly, in seeking “community engagement,” although I still wonder if it can find enough local bloggers who are truly civic-oriented in their choices of topics.
#6: Sufficient investment in local bureaus
The Post and TBD lack enough bureaus in the D.C. area for the complete area coverage that both organizations want people to identify with their respective brands.
I know. The Post management seems to be on downhold right now. But I can at least write about what the Washington Post Company should be doing. Besides, the Post could gradually scale up, town by town, and focus on topics of the widest interest, such as the Fairfax County public school system, the very stuff to which TBD has paid insufficient attention.
One solution would be to buy and expand existing local blogs, for example The Georgetown Dish (owned by a friend of mine), which covers Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn’s neighborhood, where many other well-known journalists live. What better way to compare real life with hyperlocal coverage and learn? The downside is that even a well-wired area like D.C.’s does not contain enough truly civic oriented sites that are worth the Post’s acquiring. This is absolutely no reflection on gifted bloggers who are busily pursuing their personal interest in areas ranging from neighborhood dining to the Redskins.
Another possibility is to acquire local newspapers such as the Alexandria Times. But here, too, I worry about the gap between supply and need, and besides, local newspaper reporters may not be comfortable with the high level of interactivity that the new-media approach demands. Helpfully, the Washington Post Company already owns some local newspapers in D.C.’s Maryland and Virginia suburbs.
Local partnerships, especially with Post alumni, are yet another option—consider what the Miami Herald has been doing in this regard. Ana Acle-Menendez has teamed up with the Herald on West Kendall Today, with the Herald using links to send traffic her way, in return for its share of the ad revenue. Going beyond the TBD model, the Herald even hosts her site.
As yet another possibility, maybe the Post can think about starting its own hyperlocal sites and using Net-smart people who in other eras might have become metro columnists, given their writing and people skills. Some or all of the content they originated could appear on the main site, and the very best could even show up in the pulped-wood newspaper. There would be a twist. In line with the ideas in point #5, I’d recommend that these people in most cases be required to live in or very near the places they reported on (well, within the limit of Post salaries and the real estate market). Given the prestige of the Post, it might well find enough talented recruits.
By involving Post-employed and -trained bloggers in the creation of local history databases, hyperlocal blogrolls, etc. (perhaps in consultation with long-time residents), the Post could bring its people up to speed on the areas covered and avoid the Loudoun County blunders. These bloggers would have skills as enablers–functioning as editors, not just writers–and even as organizers with Alinksky-style skills (not to to pitch specific positions on individual issues but to get citizens engaged with both the hyperlocal sites and community matters).
Significantly, if a Post hyperlocal operation start caring about local history and other matters at the neighborhood level, it might well turn history buffs and PTA moms into volunteer writers (with training–one of the core strengths of the company owning Kaplan).
But where to start with a built-from-scratch hyperlocal outposts? I love a criterion that Patch uses; namely, that the host community be civic-minded and care, for example, about schools. And going in the other direction, if hyperlocal journalism can itself encourage more of the same community spirit, then so much the better.
Let me conclude by noting that hyperlocal is and should be just one way to build trust and otherwise grow closer to readers; it is no panacea. How about a decent corrections policy, for example? When I ran the e-book blog, I discovered that readers were less offended by errors per se than by their not being acknowledged. And oh how they appreciated the right column on the home page and elsewhere—where they could instantly post their replies to my posts? Why can’t hyperlocal sites more prominently display comments (moderated)? Here’s to reforms in many areas! Still, by accurately, truthfully and fairly covering topics familiar to readers, who can verify the material themselves, hyperlocal journalists can be major trust-builders and thereby help their news organizations grow closer to local communities.
Update, August 29: See comment from TBD community engagement director Steve Buttry on Mark Potts’ role. I’ve changed the copy, which earlier described him as an adviser to TBD.