It’s been the week of hyperlocal. And by week, I mean the past two days, since Twitter accelerates the online journalism news cycle to roughly the rate at which we breathe. I hadn’t finished exhaling the news of Everyblock’s sale to MSNBC before Jeff Jarvis’s hyperlocal news model hit me like burst of hot air. Each of these rapid-fire developments have significant implications for the narrative of hyperlocal’s (possible) emergence, and are worth examining in their own right–and in how they relate to each other.
Last week, a piece I had written appeared in Fast Company magazine about the prospects for hyperlocal. After spending months researching the topic for my thesis at NYU, I adapted my findings into a shorter, somewhat gimlet-eyed take on the excitement surrounding the hopes for the hyperlocal model. Boiled down to its essence, I found that there is room for some hyperlocal sites to grow and prosper, but expectations that it will take off on a mass scale are actually counterproductive, and weigh down the enterprise.
When the week started, I was still wading through responses to the piece, which had included the subhead “Can The New York Times or AOL find the $100 billion local-advertising pot of gold?” Somehow, that became the article’s tagline on Twitter, and many people who must have skimmed or entirely skipped the piece took it as a ringing endorsement of the hyperlocal model. Despite several gracious emails I received from burgeoning hyperlocal companies, I believe the answer to that question is an emphatic no. As I mentioned in the article, the $100 billion figure comes from all the money that is currently spent on TV, radio, print, outdoor, direct mail, and online local advertising. Some–in fact, a good portion–of that money is going to be redistributed online in the next few years, and some of that will go to hyperlocal sites. But for the most part, the dreams of hyperlocal riches need to be scaled back. Hyperlocal news is not the type of material that advertisers are fighting to get next to, and the wealth of content it produces also leads to a wealth of inventory, for which there is a paucity of demand.
Minutes after I had reiterated my grim outlook for top-down hyperlocal efforts to take off on a mass scale, Mark Josephson, CEO of the hyperlocal aggregator Outside.in tweeted the following, “hyperlocal ftw! congrats to everyblock and msnbc.com.” Everyblock is a site created by Adrian Holovaty, and originally funded through a Knight grant, that collects raw data on a hyperlocal scale and presents it in an intuitive manner. The Everyblock deal captured attention for a few reasons. Christopher Anderson was troubled by the idea that something that was created with grant money and open source contributions could be sold to a private company and made proprietary. Jay Rosen astutely asked why no newspapers picked up the site, implying that they still haven’t learned much from the innovation-starved attitude that got them into the mess they’re in.
Both of these points are valid and warrant discussion, but I’m more interested in Everyblock as a hyperlocal property. Intentionally or not, the timing of Josephson’s tweet–“hyperlocal ftw!”–should have shut up any negativity I had about the model, at least temporarily. But Everyblock is not every hyperlocal site. Its value is very different than a town blog that depends on page views for revenue. As any journalist or blogger (if there’s still a distinction) who has used the site can tell you, Everyblock is an incredibly useful tool for brainstorming or fleshing out stories. A city’s “graffiti cleanup request” escalates while “graffiti cleaned” remains stagnant–figures that Everyblock tracks–and an intrepid blogger goes to find out why. It could have done wonders in measuring the effectiveness of the “broken windows” style of policing, and could prove to be a tool in fighting drug crime in a city like Baltimore. Not to mention the stories that could grow out of detailed maps of building permits, filmings, and failed restaurant inspections. It’s no wonder a company like NBC, with its renewed focus on “Locals Only” Web coverage would be interested in Everyblock.
While the implications of the Everyblock deal we’re still just sinking in, the next wave of hyperlocal hysteria took root. Jeff Jarvis, ringleader of the hyperlocal parade, presented his New Business Model for News at the FOCAS conference in Aspen. Dazzling with a slick presentation and detailed spreadsheets, Jarvis presented an idea for a new news ecosystem that would include hyperlocal sites. The figures look appealing and a combination of national, metro, and hyperlocal advertising shared across a consolidated network is a solid idea.
However, as soon as Jarvis’s talk had been broadcast it was already met with intense skepticism. TechCrunch called the numbers “too optimistic.” Jake Dobkin, the publisher of Gothamist and hyperlocal bubble-burster tweeted, “Things that are wrong in @jeffjarvis’ ‘New Business Models For News‘ model: CPMs, pageviews, costs, revenues.”
It is so much easier to poke holes in someone else’s model than to create your own, and Jarvis should receive all the credit for trying to make it all work. However, the reason for shouting down the hyperlocal hoopla isn’t schadenfreude. It’s because blind optimism in a failing model doesn’t help anyone. Hyperlocal news is an organic product, and it has to grow that way, or it will be overextended and useless.
For further proof, look no further than the news that The Washington Post is shuttering Loudon Extra, which came just one day after Jarvis’s presentation. The site was launched with great fanfare in 2007, with the Post bringing in a team of hyperlocal superstars to design a site for the 270,000 residents of Loudon County, Virginia. From the start, the site didn’t fit in with the community. Traffic was surprisingly low, there was little interaction with the residents, and people in disparate parts of the county had little interest in what was happening in neighboring towns. Most importantly, the Post was pouring in outsized resources into a money-losing product. The Wall Street Journal declared the site a flop, and it limped along for another year and change until yesterday.
Every Loudon Extra, overstated projection, and unrealistic hope for hyperlocal pushes its actualization farther away. There is room for hyperlocal sites to grow, but they can’t, and shouldn’t grow everywhere. There are two ways of dealing with this. One, which has been adopted somewhat successfully by Topix.net is the probabilistic model. Give every town the ability to produce hyperlocal news, then nurture the ones that do. This has led to active community participation in 1,500 towns, some of which average hundreds of monthly views per town resident. The other way is to find the blogs that have already established themselves with their communities, or the communities that have the ability to foster a community blog, and incorporate them into a larger network. Hyperlocalville is not Hollywood, and a few blockbusters will not be able to sustain lost returns. Hyperlocal success should be judged on a hyperlocal level–and not on whether or not it is the savior of journalism.