Writing in the American Journalism Review, Barb Palser argues that the new breed of hyperlocal news sites may fall short of expectations because there just isn’t enough demand:
According to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, only 20 percent of American adults reported using digital tools to communicate with their neighbors or stay informed about community issues at least once in the past year. Only one in 10 reported reading a community blog at least once in the past year.
Palser’s pessimism intersects nicely with an observation I (and others) have been making for some time: that disengagement from civic life is among the most persistent problems plaguing the news business. It doesn’t matter how good a job your local weekly newspaper or website does of covering your community if you fundamentally don’t care about what’s going on in your community. Thus, in order to succeed, a news organization must foster civic engagement in a way that actually builds an audience for its coverage of governmental meetings, neighborhood events and routine police-blotter news.
Palser is right that community journalism is not a big-money business. It never has been. Two or three generations ago, local newspapers were marginal businesses owned and operated by people who were rooted in the community. We see the same phenomenon today with grassroots news sites, whether they are for-profit, like Baristanet and the Batavian, or non-profit, like the New Haven Independent.
In Eastern Massachusetts, we have an interesting battle under way involving hyperlocal sites operated by the the New York Times Co. ( the Boston Globe’s Your Town), GateHouse Media (Wicked Local) and AOL’s Patch.com. The competition is good for readers and good for job-seeking journalists. Yet I suspect that the ones who are in it for the long haul are those who are passionate about their communities, and are trying to figure out how to transform that passion into a business. A good example of this is the network of sites operated at CentralMassNews.com, which aren’t beautiful, but which are chock full of news and advertising.
Palser’s argument, essentially, is that hyperlocal is not a promising strategy for large media corporations to return to the glory days of yesteryear. I agree. But that’s not what hyperlocal is or should be about. It should be about finding news ways of doing community journalism and making a living.
And though local ownership is not necessarily the key ingredient, I think it’s much more likely that grassroots sites will foster the civic engagement they need to build readership than those operated by large, out-of-state media companies.
Further thoughts from Steve Safran at Lost Remote.
11 thoughts on “Hyperlocal news and civic engagement”
I heard about this survey when it was first published earlier this year. I’ll also agree that trying to make money off hyper-local is not likely to happen. Others have tried, others are trying but I don’t see it happening.
I persist in my efforts to share information that matters with folks in Franklin to help ensure that the correct information is available for discussion. There is so much misinformation around an issue, getting the proper sources to get the full story in a way that matters is a challenge.
What keeps me going is also from the same set of survey results. While the 20% referenced above represents the 30$ of the community that is on line, 50% acknowledge getting their news from the neighbor in face to face discussions, i.e over the fence, or at the coffee shop.
So what does that mean for a hyper-local site like mine? I’ll publish and use the social media and web 2.0 channels as much as possible (this feeds those online). I’ll also set up face-to-face or ‘open office hour’ type sessions. I have done one thus far and plan to do more. The combination of in person conversation and leaving them with a resource (online) to go back to, should work.
It will take time to grow the readership and involvement but I like to think it is possible.
At myDedham.org there were about 15,000 unique visitors in August. I think that’s pretty good for a town of 24,000 people. Of course, that includes someone who checks at home and then again at work, but it doesn’t factor in the husband and wife who both check from the same home computer. I have nothing to base this on, but I consider those two things to be about a wash.
Obviously, then, I disagree that people don’t want news about their communities. Here in Dedham we have an independent weekly, a Gatehouse weekly, Patch, and a Boston.com Your Town, plus the myDedham blog. Every town is different, but my experience has been that a respectful online community where people can express themselves and share information has been a great supplement to the physical community we all live in.
The myDedham blog is popular, and without the demand for information (often the type the news organizations either don’t know because they are not from here or choose not to publish for fear of ruffling official feathers) it wouldn’t have nearly the readership that it does.
I agree about the disengagement from civic life but I do think there’s a point at which people do become engaged – or could be prompted to do so.
I know someone whose daughter recently began subscribing to the local paper after a lifetime of not really being a newspaper reader. What did it? Her kids entered school and she wanted to read about what the school board was doing, what was happening in the local schools.
I’ve seen this phenomenon before, mostly among women. They want to find out what’s going on in their town, in their neighborhood, especially once they have kids.
So I agree that no one’s going to get rich off of hyper-local but there is a niche for it.
I wonder if the online hyperlocal scene has become gentrified much like physical spaces. All the hyperlocal sites I have seen seem to cater to white, middle (or upper middle) class readers. Nothing wrong with that. But I wonder if, even though we have the tools, we are replicating the inequalities that have always existed in the media. If a hyperlocal site that attracts upper middle class readers isn’t financially viable, then one that is aimed at those at the other end of the income spectrum has no chance.
@Mike: Agreed, and that’s where the non-profit model comes in. See the New Haven Independent. No for-profit company would take on such a project.
This is, as you noted, old news to newspapers: It has always been harder to have a good, successful newspaper in a town full of commuters who work in a nearby city than in a town which is relatively isolated and acts like the center of its own universe.
I’ve been so away for two weeks that I didn’t even know I should have been preparing for Hurricane Earl and watching the stock and real estate markets continue to tank together.
However, I did want to know who had died and who had been arrested in town. That used to be the job of the local press.
Don’t expect to see me linking to your post from my community blog.
I’ll be at the bowling alley. Alone.
I hope Patch succeeds. I agree with Dan that it will be hard to sustain it with an out of state corporation hoping to rely on solitary edition-editors working 24/7. But there’s promise in the idea of getting national ads to support very local journalism by developing nationwide scale. In the next year Patch will have more local reporters covering local towns in southern Connecticut than the print daily. Everyone benefits.
Like Paul, I would like to see Patch succeed. The only way these small news sites can succeed longterm is with the backing of a national company to generate and maintain the ad and IT infrastructure.
CentralMassNews.com is a great site, but also had an investor willing to put the money up to get it started.
I wonder if Patch has any kind of revenue sharing model with editors and reporters. This would go a long way to prevent the kind of turnover that will inevitably come from the long hours and relatively low pay. Give the staff a piece of what they’re building!
As a journalism teacher, I’m hoping the growth of a system like Patch will also generate more student interest in covering local government and public affairs. Many journalism students hold their noses when faced with an assignment about property taxes or school budgets. But a reporter for any robust hyperlocal site is going to need to report intelligently on these topics.
The Marblehead Patch seems to have good coverage of town boards, but it’s missing one crucial, hometown-paper traffic driver: obituaries!
I’m not so sure a large financial backer is necessary. lynnhappens.com’s only recurring expense is the monthly web-hosting fee. I already had a dSLR and video camera. Otherwise, WordPress is free. The only other factor is available time.
If I can run a hyper-local site without any real background in journalism or web development, and funded from my relatively meager teacher’s salary, I don’t understand why big backers are necessary. My only disadvantage is that I can not pay reporters and other staff to take care of what I’m not available for. But, I don’t take on more than I can handle.
My site is growing slowly, but at least by google analytics, it is growing. I don’t require tens of thousands of hits a day and a steady stream of ad clients to keep it going.
But getting back on topic, as LH grows, it’s picking up those who are, for the most part, already engaged in their communities and who are not finding the content they want in traditional media. It’s not a bad audience to have.
And one more thing I’ve learned along the way – cover more of the arts than your other local media. Those posts see more eyeballs than any other, at least on my site..
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