In Chicago, too much hyperlocal competition?

A couple of friends today sent me a link to Mike Fourcher’s ruminations on what he learned running the Center Square Journal, a hyperlocal news site in Chicago that he started three years ago. He offers 21 lessons, and they’re not without value. But what stands out from my reading of them is that he simply faced too much competition for advertisers and readers. And that, in turn, was a consequence of his making an unfortunate choice of location.

Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 4.07.11 PMThe sites I profile in “The Wired City” — mainly the New Haven Independent, but also The Batavian, CT News Junkie, the Connecticut Mirror, Voice of San Diego and Baristanet — have very different business models, but they all have one thing in common: a niche that was being woefully underserved before they came along to serve it.

New Haven illustrates my point. Paul Bass launched the Independent in 2005 to provide city and neighborhood news that was largely being ignored by everyone else — including the region’s daily paper, the New Haven Register, which tended to focus on the suburbs around New Haven. Eight years later, the Independent and the Register still serve different audiences. They compete for certain types of city news, but mainly they stay out of each other’s way. And because the Independent is a nonprofit, they’re not competing for scarce advertising dollars.

The Batavian is very different from the Independent, but it has similar advantages. The for-profit site was launched in Batavia, N.Y., by the GateHouse chain in 2008 as a pilot project. In 2009 it was acquired by Howard Owens after he was let go as GateHouse’s director of digital media.

The Batavian was up against two established news organizations: The Daily News and WBTA Radio. Owens formed a partnership with the radio station and competed fiercely with The Daily, as the locals call it. Unlike Fourcher’s experience in Chicago, though, there really wasn’t anyone else.

Like Paul Bass in New Haven, Owens carved out a niche by going more local than his competition — one county for The Batavian versus three for The Daily. It turned out that the business community was vibrant enough to support a daily newspaper, a radio station and a community website. But if there were, say, a half-dozen websites all trying to turn a profit, it’s not likely any of them would be able to make money.

Fourcher, a refugee from the robo-news operation Journatic, is now trying something interesting. He’s called a community meeting for Jan. 31 to see if his readers like the Center Square Journal enough to help him continue it in some form, or possibly to take it over in its entirety.

What’s evident from his 21 lessons, though, is that he fell short of making the Journal a vital part of his readers’ lives — possibly because there were already too many other voices competing for people’s time, attention and dollars.

3 thoughts on “In Chicago, too much hyperlocal competition?

  1. Mike Fourcher

    Dan, this is a thoughtful response.

    I totally agree that location was CSJ’s biggest problem. There was/is just too much competition for readers and advertisers, and it’s getting harder every day. Where I disagree is whether or not we made it a vital part of people’s lives. Our reader surveys showed that 70% of our readers were from the communities we cover, and at least once every two weeks, 66% of the community was reading our pubs. I’m not sure there’s many pubs that can say they had those kind of numbers.

    I believe the problem was not that we were capturing enough people in our communities, it’s that even if we did, that wasn’t enough for our advertisers, who were interested in reaching way beyond our communities. Second, short of a media Armageddon, there is no way any publication could get local media consumers to ignore all the other outlets and claims on their attention. So, where should an advertiser put their money?

    There’s no clear answer, and I’m not sure I or anyone else could force anyone to make a particular choice.

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  3. Anna Tarkov

    This is an astute analysis. At some point, too much competition is too much and that’s all there is to it. For instance, Andrew Huff, the head guy at Gapers Block (http://www.gapersblock.com) has said on more than one occasion that if he were launching today, he probably wouldn’t get the share of audience. The same could be said of countless other sites, whether they be local or national in scope. For instance, could someone launch another Huffington Post today?

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