Kaylin Bugos tells their stories in the American Journalism Review. Now if only zombie Patch sites would shut down so that the independents will have a better chance.
Corporate hyperlocal is fading, with Patch being the prime example. Independent hyperlocal is working. Howard Owens, one of my main subjects in “The Wired City,” discusses the success of The Batavian this week with NPR’s “On the Media.”
Here is a blog post I wrote in July about The Batavian’s growth.
Just catching up with this. Jon Chesto of the Boston Business Journal reports that The Boston Globe’s Your Town sites are being trimmed by six correspondents — approximately half the staff. Your Town, part of the Globe’s free Boston.com website, provides hyperlocal coverage of the suburbs as well as of several Boston neighborhoods.
Globe regional editor David Dahl tells Chesto that there will be no site closures. But it seems inevitable that there will be cuts in coverage, even though Globe staff reporters and freelancers will continue to contribute. There are more than 100 Your Town sites and about 15 related Your Campus websites covering colleges and universities in Greater Boston.
Your Town got off to a shaky start in 2008, as GateHouse Media — which operates Wicked Local sites in virtually all of the same communities targeted by Your Town — sued the New York Times Co. (the Globe’s owner, at least for a few more weeks) for copyright infringement, arguing that the Your Town sites in some cases aggregated virtually all of GateHouse’s content for a given community without offering much else.
The two sides reached an out-of-court settlement in early 2009, as I reported for The Guardian. Your Town eventually grew into a valuable resource in many communities. But it looks like the sites, which carry little advertising, got to be too expensive to operate.
Chesto writes that the cuts call hyperlocal coverage into question as a business strategy, noting that AOL’s Patch sites are in the midst of deep cuts as well. But though hyperlocal may well be a loser at the corporate chain level, there are a number of successful independent sites operating across the country. You could read a book about such sites, hint, hint. The real issue is that hyperlocal is best understood as a grassroots phenomenon.
Did Globe executives reach this decision on their own? Or was incoming owner John Henry involved? And if he was, what does that say about his priorities for the Globe?
(Disclosure: Journalism students at Northeastern as well as several other Boston colleges and universities contribute to the Your Town and Your Campus sites.)
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.
The 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.
Please mark this on your calendar — it should be a good one. Next Thursday, Sept. 22, I’ll be moderating a panel on “Local News in the Digital Age,” part of the MIT Communications Forum.
We will have an all-star cast: David Dahl, the Boston Globe’s regional editor, who’s in charge of the paper’s regional editions and the hyperlocal Your Town sites; Callie Crossley, host of “The Callie Crossley Show” on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) and a fellow panelist on “Beat the Press” (WGBH-TV, Channel 2); and Adam Gaffin, the co-founder, editor and publisher of Universal Hub, Greater Boston’s one essential hyperlocal news site.
The free event will take place from 5o to 7 p.m. in the MIT Media Lab’s Bartos Theater, at 20 Ames St. in Cambridge. It’s being held at the same time that the Online News Association’s annual conference gets under way in Boston, and we’re hoping a few attendees decide to wander over as well.
Thirty independent community news sites have banded together to tell the world, in effect, “We are not Patch.” The project, called Authentically Local, includes such well-known sites as Baristanet, based in Montclair, N.J., The Batavian, of Batavia, N.Y., and the New Haven Independent.
In a statement posted online, Baristanet founder and editor Debbie Galant says:
The Authentically Local campaign seeks to illuminate the difference between authentic local businesses and those that are just cashing in — before every town in America becomes one giant strip mall. This is not just about us, the owned-and-operated sites that write about place. It’s about place.
The alliance includes both for-profit and non-profit sites. Its motto, “local doesn’t scale,” appears to be aimed squarely at AOL’s Patch.com sites, a network of hyperlocal sites that are a key part of AOL’s efforts to reinvent itself.
Recently Galant compared Patch to Wal-Mart, saying, “The profits are going to a corporation. And so it’s difficult. It makes us understand what the local merchants are dealing with on a regular basis, for different local hardware stores to be competing against Home Depot. It’s basically the same thing.”
Patch has emerged as a real hiring engine for journalists at a time when the news business continues to shrink. So I’d like to see both Patch and the independents thrive. To the extent that Patch poses a threat to the indies, I hope Authentically Local helps them compete on a level field.
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.