Hyperlocal lessons

I don't see any point in joining the snarkfest that is unfolding on some blogs in the wake of the Wall Street Journal's highly critical article about LoudounExtra.com. But it does make me want to pass on some basic points that should be absorbed by anyone thinking about hyperlocal and citizen media.

"Hyperlocal" on the Web really has to do with finding natural geocommunities, where interpersonal connections (or great potential for connections) coincide with geography. Natural communities are hard to identify. It's more art than science.

Natural communities may be smaller than you expect. In fact, they may be too small to sustain a media business. That doesn't mean you can't build a business out of a network of hyperlocal products. Don't think monolithic.

Natural communities often don't map to political subdivisions. This is something I learned decades ago in St. Louis, a tangle of overlapping governmental districts that don't supply simple answers the simple question: "Where do you live?"

Natural communities don't necessarily map to the needs of marketers (the people formerly known as "advertisers.") This is increasingly true as America becomes Generica, land of fast-food franchises and big-box retailers. If you're a journalist thinking about doing this, you need to make yourself into a business planner first.

Natural communities have great potential for developing participative Web experiences (the practice formerly and poorly known as "user-generated content.") But it does not happen by accident. If you want to be a convener of community, you'd better be ready to get off your duff, away from the computer, and out in front of people. This is something you have to build by selling it in person to the people you want to engage.

And one last point. Geographic community ties are not as strong in this century as in previous centuries. You can do something about that (see Putnam and BetterTogether.org) but be aware that you're working against a climate shift.


Steve, I'd be interested in your take on two related subjects: -- How hyperlocal is AND is not working at blufftontoday.com. -- Hyperlocal sites vs. niche sites. Andy

One of the things I have noticed in building blognetnews is that the sense of community in the blogosphere is often disconnected from geography. There's a strong sense of community among cycling bloggers that is stronger between two cycling bloggers, on in San Francisco and another in Australia than there is among bloggers in Hampton Roads, VA where I live (Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Newport News). I think part of getting hyperlocal is recognizing that "local" and "community" is in the mind of readers/content creators/bloggers and you're better off trying to serve it where it already exists than trying to create it.

Exactly. And mind reading is even harder than it looks.

Bluffton Today: In audience terms hyperlocal is working very well in Bluffton -- great print readership, great Web traffic, fierce loyalty to the paper. Keep in mind that it's a print-Web combination, not one or the other. I can't/don't discuss the finances but you can see the ads if you look at the paper and the website. Hyperlocal vs. niche: Well, I think hyperlocal is a niche, and as such it's only one way to carve up the territory. In any larger metro market you'll immediately see ways to combine geography with demographic, psychographic and special-interest appeals to create specialty products. That's why we have Skirt, and it's why we have regional Skirts, while we also have parent- and mom-oriented products in many of our markets. And it's why Gannett has been launching mom-oriented sites and pet-owner sites in local markets. It's a matter of doing a business case for each concept, and then being able to actually manage the brands. Newspapers, with their general-interest, single-product cultures, aren't necessarily good at any of that.

The examples you have offered are pretty well executed and they can stand on their own, don't have to tie back to an established masthead brand, though if it makes sense they could. This is still an issue in some corners of newspaper-dom, getting clearer but needs emphasis. The business model for our companies should be in multiple mediums or channels. As you stated previously, the real business model is in the the aggregation of communities. There are still attempts to presume that all hyper local communities, niches, etc. have to tie back to the traditional brand. It's intuitive to those in the middle of hyper local or niche thinking that these can exist without a visible link to newspaper.com, but it's not to those who have cut their teeth on "the" masthead and are asking for ways to bolster that piece of the business. I have to commend your articulation of the "aggregation" of hyper local communities, and this is a model that needs emphasis within the industry. It may be more descriptive of the direction needed than just describing a migration from print to digital.

What products would you recommend to back this strategy? We all know that reader's blogs, comments, forums etc are already in place in many regional online newspapers, but they do not really work for aggregating communities. Most of already existing neighbourhoods have used other sites to create communities, such as Facebook, Newswire, etc. How do we get them back to their newspaper?