Is the potential of hyperlocal news overhyped?

This is a question that constantly races through my mind as I build up content on my own local sports news site and ponder the possibilities not just for monetizing it, but also for engaging a vibrant community around it:

Is the hyperlocal news model, as envisioned and explained by some of the leading lights of online journalism, little more than a pipedream? At least right now, in this nascent stage of the migration away from print? And now here’s the washingtonpost.com — one of the more forward-thinking newspaper Web sites — that couldn’t move beyond that concept with a much-hyped hyperlocal site it soon will shut down.

(An acquaintance who was part of the original staff of that site offers her thoughts on the experiment.)

On the other hand, there is the resounding success of EveryBlock, which has been sold to MSNBC and Patch, recently scooped up into the growing AOL conglomeration of news sites. These sites were begun with foundation money in the case of the former, and with the backing of powerful journalism and media figures in the case of the latter.

I’m thinking more about hyperlocals started by individuals, or a small group of individuals, working with little or no startup money and just themselves.

I spoke yesterday with someone who wants to help me promote, market and monetize my site. He’s interested in the same niche, believes in its potential and had purchased some domain names similar to mine before discovering what I’ve done in just a couple of short months. He doesn’t have content expertise, and when he asked me what my editorial vision was, I rattled off some of the ideas I’ve heard from Jeff Jarvis, Mark Potts and other boosters of hyperlocal news. This is an entirely new endeavor for me, and I have no other point of reference beyond blending those notions with previous experience covering this subject at my former newspaper.

So I was intrigued to read an account of Monday’s Aspen Institute forum on communications, and specifically, some hyperlocal news models worked up by Jarvis and his students at the City University of New York. TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld thinks some of the numbers in Jarvis’ spreadsheets are quite optimistic, in terms of page views and the revenue potential for bloggers. There were other doubts expressed by Esther Dyson and Michael Kinsley, hardly stodgy old media types:

“ ‘Aren’t you reinventing the wheel?’ Kinsley asked him. ‘I think it needs some reinvention,’ responded Jarvis. ‘We wanted to see if there is a vision for the future of journalism.’

“When Jarvis was asked who the dominant species would be in this new ecosystem, he answered: ‘No one owns the whole thing anymore. No one can afford to own it anymore. So the key thing is how do you take part in the network.’ His numbers might be way off, but at least he is trying to rethink the news.”

I don’t want to throw any cold water on experimentation, especially with my own idea incubating. And especially with projects that are working and successful here and here. While I’ve been critical of Jarvis on occasion, I appreciate that he’s brainstorming a topic few are bothering to undertake. And God love him for doing all this while battling prostate cancer.

But I think Schonfeld’s assessment, and a skeptical take in the recent issue of Fast Company, are raising some sobering, and necessary topics for those of us testing the hyperlocal waters. So is Jim Barnett’s analysis from a non-profit point of view: It’s still gonna require advertising.

As I typed that last sentence, a message popped in my inbox from a fellow member of a hyperlocal news message board and whose site is in the black by selling local advertising:

“You are all right . . . it has to have a voice, an editor, a journalistic sensibility in order to have any integrity . . .”

Regardless of the long odds and the difficult challenge, the lure of the hyperlocal approach remains strong.

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3 thoughts on “Is the potential of hyperlocal news overhyped?

  1. Agreed! “Hyper” is the new “Strategic”. Attemping to launch my site, http://www.WikiCity.com has no easy task, and two of the items you listed above: (i.) engaging local advertisers and (ii.) preserving integrity have proven to be constant challenges.

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  2. Wendy,
    The main hurdle for success (outside of finding top-notch writers/bloggers/news people) is ADVERTISING. This component of the media industry has not had to bend and twist and mangle itself in the ways “content” has in order to meet the needs of the changing landscape.
    When someone figures out that puzzle piece, these hyperlocal ventures will be successful. (Yes, we’re watching Mark Potts and Bob Benz to see how their new cos. will work.)

    One of my fellow Loudouners did hyperlocal on his own with Loudounprepsports.com, which was bought by DigitalSports, and recently sold to an education company. But he’s now back on his own. And there is confidence he can do what he did before — make enough money to pay for his site, his salary, and a couple freelancers.

    Another thing to consider: It is a big risk for people to go out and do the kind of reporting we did at LE.com/Washingtonpost.com without some good legal backing. I was able to do the more in-depth reporting on controversial political figures and issues because of the security a big company brings to the table.

    With all the talk there is and will be about the Post’s “failure” in hyperlocal, I want to provide some clarity through the spin:

    Parts of the LoudounExtra.com experiment were HUGELY SUCCESSFUL, other parts were high-maintenance, expensive vis-a-vis user want/need, and not sustainable in the long run.

    The Post is smart to cut some losses, regroup and refocus. I can only hope that when they transition the new page on the post.com site, it will contain those elements that made a difference in the community.

    But if they don’t, there are opportunities for someone to step in and own this space, and – as shown with Patch and Everyblock – every local community.

    http://inside-outblog.blogspot.com/2009/08/loudounextracom-going-dark.html

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