Quick takes: Paywalls, Patch work and point people

A new notes:

* Interesting move in California: The Sonoma Index-Tribune decided to drop its online paywall this week after AOL’s Patch hyperlocal product started a site in the community. Patch, which integrates journalists with user-submitted content, is offered at no cost for web access. The Index-Tribune’s program was three months in before the plug was pulled.

Lesson learned: You can charge for online content when you’re the only game in town. But if you are the only game in town and are charging for online content, you open the door to competition.

* Speaking of Patch, the Chicago Reader’s Mike Miner had a good piece on the life of local Patch reporters and editors, noting that AOL’s venture hired more journalists than any other business this year, although the average salary, while tempting for those straight out of college, was obviously a large step down for many out-of-work veterans who now are Patch people .

Miner likened the Patch experience to his own roots starting with UPI many, many years ago. Judging from my observations of the site and the working by friends who are employed, I have to agree that there is a scrappiness to many of these sites that you don’t see from most other hyperlocals (Triblocal being an exception here in Chicago). Judging from Miner’s story, it does sound a lot like my first gig at a small weekly newspaper. 

So it is refreshing that AOL’s venture into journalism is providing a great platform for new journalists to cut their teeth and hone their skills.

What’s sad is there isn’t much to jump to after that. The moral here: Follow your passion, but keep your day job.

 *New York Times Social Media Editor Jennifer Preston will be reassigned to a reporting role next year, with her duties as the Time’s social media point person going to the interactive staff. While she had been criticized at the beginning for not knowing much about social media, you have to give her credit for helping NYT focus its social media strategy and teach staff how to utilize it.

If you follow NYT socially, you know  how well they’ve integrated it into their news strategy, and how interactive many of the key staff are. Here’s hoping that eliminating the point person means the social media ship can run itself.

The business (or lack thereof) of hyperlocal

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.

Hyper(local) ventilating

Some notes from the hyperlocal front:

* This week marked the debut of the highly-touted hyperlocal site TBD.com in Washington. Although the site does not seem that far different from other hyperlocals that have cropped up, what’s behind the home page is far more unique.

First, the developers of TBD, for the most part, have a background in Washington-area journalism, many coming from the Washington Post and its website. So there is a sense of institutional knowledge that sites like Patch lack. Second, the site is partners with a local ABC-TV affiliate, so the traditional synergies are coming from the broadcast side of the fence, instead of the print. That may actually provide an advantage in writing bright and tight — as well as more compelling multimedia — to the site.

TBD also has developed ‘relationships’ with a network of local bloggers to help the editorial staff of about 12 develop local content for the site. Though they’ve been very shy of giving out details of this blogger ‘relationship,’ it is assumed that they are compensated in some way.

In a recent blog chat with the Poynter Institute, TBD’s Steve Buttry stressed the key to the site’s success is developing community engagement.  Buttry’s cry is no different from other ventures, but if TBD’s blogger ‘relationship’ gives the front-line writers feeling of empowerment and buy-in (such as the relationship Examiner.com enjoys with its blogger network), then they may actually have success. 

TBD will be the one to watch over the next year.

* AOL’s Patch hyperlocal network continues to grow. This week they opened their 100th site in New Jersey, and are targeting 500 sites by year’s end. Locally, two sites have opened in suburban Chicago, with Patch’s home page promising 9 more sites soon. Their recruiting efforts locally have targeted more than 50 communities.

(Disclosure: My wife has done contract work for Patch, and I was recruited for a position.)

Patch’s aggressiveness to build a nationwide network of laser-local sites is certainly attractive to the national advertisers AOL is trying to woo with the promise of getting a national brand to Main Street level. However, in a market where there is plenty of competition and a decent showing from the Tribune Co.-owned Triblocal sites, it remains an uphill battle to sell Patch and AOL to people who do not have a ‘local’ impression on the brand.

Plus, it’s cookie-cutter design may help keep Patch’s costs down (and low-to-no overhead is a key in its operation), but provides as much local “feel” as McDonald’s. By itself it looks fine, but as you go from town to town, you realize they are all alike. 

Selling Patch’s as “local” — especially in markets where hyperlocals already exist — will be a tough row to hoe.

Right now, my money’s on TBD.

Rise of the hyperlocals?

Alan Mutter’s recent blog item about Yahoo’s purchase of Associated Content and its inherent threat to newspapers highlights a renewed interest in hyperlocal news sites … to folks outside of the news industry.

Mutter points out that Yahoo acquired a stable of 380,000 writers who could potentially be utilized to provide content on a very local level. Those writers could draw audiences that could make Yahoo’s rich database even richer.

This news comes amid AOL’s push to expand its purchase last year of Patch, a hyperlocal news site that showed signs of success in suburban New York. Since then, AOL has taken Patch to key suburban areas in California and is currently planning to launch a number of sites in suburban Chicago.

And that could be bad news for local publishers, many of whom have written off hyperlocal as not a big moneymaker. Unfortunately, most of that thought falls on the failure of early ventures during the mid-part of the last decade, when the Denver-based YourHub and the independent Backfence unsuccessfully tried to expand on the user-generated local content model.

So what makes hyperlocal so interesting now? Well, local news has always been big among readers, no matter what the platform. And, as Mutter points out, Yahoo’s targeted audience model would provide big national advertisers with laser-point advertising in local markets that they are unable to get through traditional media (Likewise, AOL’s customer database also provides a pinpoint local portal with national advertising, and has successfully provided that at some of their original Patch sites).

So, unlike its predecessors, the new hyperlocals have the potential to generate revenue from bigger clients as well as the mom-and-pop operations.

What will be interesting to see is whether Yahoo’s local efforts turn into a local collections of bloggers, a la exmainer.com, or follow the Patch (and the Backfence/YourHub) models as becoming a combination staff-and-user generated local news site.  In either case, you won’t see the enterprising and expose journalism that local newspapers are re-adopting, but you will see an increase of the ‘virtual refrigerator door’ type of news that readers … especially suburban readers … still crave.

(As an aside, it will also be interesting to see if AOL can leverage its brand in Chicago, where the Tribune Company has been doing hyperlocal for a few years with its TribLocal web and reverse-to-print products, and other local sites linked to traditional brands exist. Can Patch gain reader loyalty in an area that already has established local brands … especially in a market where the readership still associates AOL with ‘you’ve got mail’ and as one Twitter follower pointed out to me, should be renamed ‘AWOL’?)

But if Yahoo, AOL and others (Google, maybe?) can capitalize on hyperlocal, it will spell big trouble for publishers who are still clawing to hang on to its remaining readership.  As I noted in past blogs, the hyperlocal site that has the deepest and most dynamic local database will be the one who owns the market. Yahoo and its like know databases … and know how to make big money off of them.

And that could be the worst news for publishers on their strongest level.

Respect the content; respect the writer

An interesting conversation was brought up from blogger Alan Mutter, who recently issued a battle cry for journalists being paid nothing — or next to nothing — for their work in traditional and non-traditional news sites. His call: Journalists should just say no to working  for nothing, and start demanding they be paid like the professionals they are.

Numerous readers … many of the part of the ‘exploited’ group Mutter was talking to … responded that while the idea was well-received, the reality is that news organizations traditionally paid next-to-nothing for content. Coupled with the increased pool of unemployed and underemployed journalists seeking work, any efforts to demand a reasonable compensation will be undercut by those who are willing to work for nothing.

Mutter’s well-positioned response to that argument can be read here.

While the nay-sayers are steeped in the fact of the present, I’m amazed that so many freelance and unemployed journalist are willing to accept their fate. Granted, being in the midst of a serious economic downturn isn’t helping the industry any, but those who chose to make journalism their livelihood should be willing to fight to support the credibility and respect it deserves.

Successful online sites like Huffington Post, examiner.com, etc., are surviving and thriving on the ‘low overhead’ of not paying — or paying at minimal levels — for its content. In many ways,writers are making less now than they did at that first job they held while going to j-school. That is just not right

You would think that journalists — who work hard to right the wrongs of others — seem to accept this fate for themselves.  Journalists must come to the realize that they are college-educated professionals, trained in a craft that has value to its customers. Businesses that rely on content produced by journalists  need to respect that and pay a reasonable compensation.

Ironically, it seems that employers outside the news industry recognize that. My wife and I both have done contract work writing and editing for other businesses. We have submitted invoices that would make Arianna Huffington laugh so hard she’d spit milk through her nose — but we are paid without question. I’m sure a lot of freelance writers have noticed the same thing.

 I can understand that start-ups companies may have a problem paying a stable of writers a decent living wage. But if a start-up is truly committed to success, it may want to consider hiring a select group of writers and offering an incentive package that would give writers a share of the company’s success once it becomes successful. Start-ups in the Silicone Valley in the 1980s used stock options to entice new talent to help build the company with the reward of sharing in its success later. Probably not a good option today, but creative compensation could help a new content provider entice and keep writers by giving them a stake in the company’s success.

Allowing the Huffington Post content model to continue in the industry lessens the value of content and the respect of those who create it. It’s time for employers to respect the writer and compensate them as professionals. It’s time for writers to respect themselves as the professionals they are and demand reasonable compensation for their work.

San Diego joins the ‘soft parade’ revolution

Is San Diego the latest market to join the “soft parade” revolution?

A new venture called San Diego News Network recently launched in the California city. On first blush, the site seems to reflect hyperlocal sites that have been started … and for some, failed … in other markets.

With a staff of about 25, SDNN’s approach is to utilize a combination of local news sites, citizen journalists and bloggers to provide the basis of news and information for local residents, as well as maintaining “a conversation with San Diego” through online forums.

So what makes SDNN different? It’s a unique partnership with local media outlets, from television stations to niche publications, that share ad revenue from the site, according to Interim Executive Editor Barbara Bry.

“They understand that by banding together we all win — particularly San Diegans who will have a terrific news and information resource. In exchange for a share of SDNN ad revenues, the media partners provide us with free advertising,” Bry said in an e-mail.

In addition to this partnership, SDNN also has an agreement with AP provide national and world news.

Bry would not go into specifics on the revenue sharing – nor would she discuss specific one- and five-year revenue goals – but did note that SDNN did sell out its total advertising spots for its launch.

CEO Neil Senturia adds the SDNN revenue model is different from traditional news sites.

“SDNN is structured with a much lower operational costs in terms of delivery of services and staffing with an unmatched capability to provide more personalized, hyper local news and information for readers where they live, work and play,” Senturia recently said to Chief Marketer. “Additionally, SDNN will have greater opportunities for advertisers to target specific local audiences based on demographic and psychographic information with pinpoint accuracy than other media outlets.”

Senturia calls it a local version of what Google does on a national and international level.

Senturia and Bry — a one-time reporter for the L.A. Times and Sacramento Bee — don’t hide the fact that SDNN is out to compete directly with the Union-Tribune’s SignOnSanDiego site.

“Our goal is to become the dominant homepage for San Diegans looking for news, information and meaningful conversation on a wide range of topics pertaining to the areas where they live, work and play,” Senturia said in a press release.

So, yes, San Diego will be another community to watch this year. Given its unique partnership with a host of local media, SDNN is getting it right in my mantra “do what you do best, and link to the rest.”

And if its Google-lite approach to generating revenue is successful, SDNN could be a model for other media sites, particularly those in competitive markets.

Here’s lookin’ at you, San Diego!

Death watch in Seattle

AP has an interesting story about Seattle facing the possibility of losing both its major daily newspapers. Read it here.

The Post-Intelligencer is considering going from print to online only, while the fate of the Seattle Times is uncertain. And although the P-I would retain an online presence, it would do so at a mere fraction of the labor it used to run the print operations. While noble in idea, the cutbacks may be a bit extreme to make the online P-I a viable voice for the community.

Losing a print edition to digital is not necessarily a bad thing. A community losing its voice, however, is.

UPDATE: TUESDAY, MARCH 17: Hearst made it official Monday. The P-I’s last edition is March 18. Afterwords, the P-I will be an online-only product.

While the move on face value isn’t as tragic as it may seem, there is a lot of worry just how the onlune P-I will continue to be the voice it was in print form. Only about 20 or so editorial employees are being retained for the new online venture. While they are focusing on the new mantra “Do what you do best, and link to the rest,” can 20 employees be enough to effectively cover a major metropolitan area?

We’ll see once the new seattlepi.com is unveiled.