J-Lab’s five-year status report on its New Voices community journalism project released a few weeks ago was a good confirmation of the status of hyperlocal news. While it did not surprise anyone who has been following the development of hyperlocal media, it did highlight what has been working — and what hasn’t — in the industry.
The report brought forward 10 key takeaways; three of which really stand out: Engagement (with your readers and the community as a whole) is key; sweat equity counts for a lot (It you build a hyperlocal site, they will not necessarily come…in many cases, you have to drag them to it); and legacy news outlets are not yet in the game .
A fourth takeaway — community news sites are not yet a business — may be currently true, but may also distract the casual reader. While the report justly states that many volunteer efforts are showing promise for sustainability, others want to develop sites into a sustainable business capable of paying staff and contributors. A number of traditional and non-traditional revenue plans have been tried by the sites in the report, with few being successful, and none achieving a business model that pays full salaries and benefits. (This is the main reason, I suspect, that legacy news operations are hesitant to engage in hyperlocal … it hasn’t proven itself to be the express ticket back to financial health.)
However, the key finding in the report (that wasn’t listed as a takeaway) is that the most successful sites were those developed from the bottom-up. “It’s no coincidence that some of the most robust projects originated from the founders who are intimately versed in their communities and operate their sites as a labor of love,” according to the report.
That quote harkens back to community journalism in its hey day, long before the CNHI and GateHouse homogenization of small community newspapers began. They were operated out of storefronts by a small but dedicated staff who were well plugged into the communities, knew everybody and reported every thing, no matter how big or small. They were supported by the mom-and-pop businesses in the town and eked out an earnest living. (I’m reminded of a letter written by the publisher of the Tuskeegee, Alabama newspaper a couple of years back, who argued he did not need an online presence because his newspaper was doing just fine in his town. And it probably was for the reasons mentioned above.)
Hyperlocal’s future is grounded in that dedication and engagement in the community — the more of it the better. And that is the reason legacy news sites — especially those that pride themselves in being ‘local’ — need to establish a hyperlocal connection. The local legacy news sites already have the foundation established. What they need to do is commit more sweat equity in establishing with local advertisers that hyperlocal is a grassroots approach of reaching the readers they want. And, it needs to be established that hyperlocal complement — not competes with — the established news site.
Hyperlocal will not become successful from direction at the boardroom level (sorry, AOL), but from engagement with the community at street level. J-Lab’s efforts are showing it. It’s time for local legacy news sites to step up and make the commitment to hyperlocal — not as a financial savior, but as a piece of a successful and profitable community news and information strategy.