When EveryBlock is not enough: Making local news work
Even as ambitious nationwide hyperlocal news projects collapse, small sites are staying competitive at delivering the local goods. Here’s why.
If 2007 was the bubble year for hyperlocal news with startups like EveryBlock and Patch promising to revolutionize how we learn about what’s going on outside our doorsteps, 2013 appears to be when the bubble burst. In early February, NBC closed down EveryBlock, which aggregated police reports, building permits, restaurant inspections, and web forums and sorted them so users could learn everything that was happening around their corner. A few weeks later, AOL announced that it was scaling back plans for Patch, which had aspired to create professionally edited news sites in thousands of communities in the United States. Now, it seems, Patch would be another local directory, and a rather useless and infrequently updated one at that.
Journalism doomsayers have argued that the failure of NBC’s and AOL’s hyperlocal experiments is proof that local news is a thing of the past, but the experiences of “authentically local” news sites suggest otherwise. Instead of one or two major players dominating the local news market, we have seen thousands of local newsmakers, from profit-minded small business owners to independent journalists to community activists, enter the online local media market. While not every effort has succeeded—and, in fact, many have failed—there are enough examples of thriving local news sites to be models for aspiring producers and consumers of local news. Here a few common threads successful sites share:
Start small . . . and stay small
In the tech world, scalability is everything. Today’s media-sharing site with a dedicated group of users must become tomorrow’s Twitter or Pinterest, or investors will quickly lose interest. Community news sites aren’t like that, however. Even if your traffic peaks at a thousand visitors a month, that’s still a thousand readers who otherwise wouldn’t have somewhere to turn. Orange Politics, which turns 10 this year, acts as information clearinghouse for residents of Orange County, North Carolina (home to Chapel Hill and Carrboro), despite being ad free and operating on a barebones budget. Last year, they ran a fundraiser to upgrade their server, with a goal of raising just $800.
In contrast, an ambitious start-up news and entertainment site in nearby Raleigh, New Raleigh, saw explosive growth in the years following its 2007 launch. The site’s founders, Jedidiah Gant and David Millsaps, thought they could make the site a major player in the local media landscape, and they sponsored concerts and sought ad revenue in an attempt to realize their goals. Instead, they found it difficult to make the business model work, even as New Raleigh continued to get heavy traffic, and closed the blog in late 2012 when they had to move on to new projects.
Don’t rely on traditional advertising
As the founders of New Raleigh learned, no one has figured out how to make print-level ad income with an online site, and only the largest sites can make appreciable income from selling their own advertisements. If you need money to run your site, consider other revenue sources.
Try a Kickstarter campaign (soon, it will be legal to run for a for-profit business) to pay your Web-hosting and design fees. Consider applying for local grants, or develop partnerships with local institutions. For example, when Fern Shen, a former reporter for the Washington Post, started a Kickstarter campaign in late 2011 for Baltimore Brew, a local news site she started a few years earlier, she set an ambitious goal of $15,000, which would allow them to expand their news coverage and add more video and interactive features. The campaign ended up raising almost $25,000, providing them with the money they needed to make the site sustainable.
Plan for sustainability, not for growth
Even the best entrepreneurial journalist gets tired. Running an online news site is difficult, sometimes thankless work. Town council and school board meetings drag on (and on), breaking news is difficult to cover, and, of course, other duties sometimes take precedence over updating a community calendar. At the same time, a site that is rarely updated has a hard time keeping its readers.
In order to avoid the spiral of death that kills off local news sites, plan for sustainable coverage. Gather a team of like-minded people to grow your site, and continue to recruit long after you think you’ve hit the saturation point. Consider moving away from an editor-centric model to a more collaborative one. For example, after years of running Orange Politics solo, founder Ruby Sinreich started an editorial board in 2011, which allowed her to offload some of the responsibility of updating the site to its regular contributors, ensuring that the site would survive even if she had to step away from it.
If the big players in local news are calling it quits, the small news sites are staying in the game, proving the value, if not profitability, of providing local, community-focused news. If you’re not running your own neighborhood news site, make a habit of visiting the sites that are out there, and telling your friends and family about them. With every click, comment, and link, you help keep community journalism alive.