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From AJR,   October/November 2011  issue

Hyperlocal Heroes   

A firsthand look at how some members of the burgeoning roster of hyperlocal news Web sites do their job Fri. August 26, 2011


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

The newsroom of Baristanet is, on this sunny day at least, running briskly from an alcove in the Trend Coffee and Tea House, overlooking the main drag of Montclair, New Jersey. Site founder Debbie Galant and daily editor Erika Bleiberg have fired up their laptops and smartphones and are working the hour's hot story: bedbugs.

Their site focuses on local news from Montclair and surrounding towns. Today, Galant has noticed a local tenant's online complaint about bedbugs. She has the property owner on the phone explaining how he thought he had handled the problem.

Bleiberg, comfortable in a green easy chair and sipping iced decaf, is previewing a feature about to be posted and conferring by phone with a freelancer.

With the bedbug assignment safely squashed, Galant remembers hearing about a new fitness center going into a downtown storefront. She grabs her iPhone and heads down the street to shoot photos of the remodeling. In a two-block, 10-minute outing she drops in on a going-out-of-business sale, dodges ladders to get photos of the new fitness studio, encounters a freelancer and assigns a story, and bumps into an old friend who sets her straight on another tip.

The rhythm has the feel of old-fashioned, print-anything-that-moves community journalism. But the comparison doesn't fully fit. As hundreds of online startups churn out more and more local news, Baristanet may represent a potentially epochal shift in how local information is presented and consumed. Where traditional community weeklies and dailies were one-stop centers monopolizing area news and ads (and audience), the emerging hyperlocal model is more niche than comprehensive, more fragmented than unified, more personalized than standardized.

It trends toward sites like Baristanet with flavor and personality that forgo comprehensiveness and offer an eclectic mix to hook and engage local audiences.

"We're not the newspaper of record," Galant says. "We go for more of a life on the street feel, finding the things you see out of the corner of your eye that are interesting. We want to start a conversation. If you read Baristanet, you'll be versed. If you go to a dinner party, you'll have something to talk about."

For decades, community media thrived by vacuuming up everything from city council deliberations to Aunt Bernice's vacation adventures. Many local papers and their sites continue this approach, but independents and startups are readjusting.

"I don't think the future model is to be comprehensive," says Michele McLellan, a veteran journalist who studied online community news while a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. "That's less and less the way people consume news."

Instead of relying on one site that covers everything, local readers may skip from homepage to homepage, finding government coverage in one place, kids' sports in another and neighborhood doings and commentary elsewhere. Soon local "hubs" may serve as starting points for local browsing much as portal sites organized the larger Internet years ago.

None of this is settled, however. Local news remains oddly one of the final frontiers not yet conquered under the Internet's mighty dominion. But its time seems to be arriving, and experiments abound.

Sites may target cities, sections or neighborhoods, focus on themes like arts or government news, update hourly or a few times a week, provide snippets or fleshed-out storytelling, offer original content or mostly aggregate. They range from one- or two-people's labors of love to the hundreds of local sites being rolled out by AOL's Patch.

Naturally, the digital deluge provokes the usual Big Questions. Can core public service local journalism survive in this chaotic environment? Can anyone actually make money there?

"The question," says Alan Mutter, a media consultant who writes the oft-cited Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, "isn't whether talented and highly motivated people can write the stories and take the pictures and post the videos. They can. It's whether the rest of the world will want to see it so they can get paid for it."

For this report, AJR decided to focus less on high concepts, business strategies and sites associated with traditional media, and more on local startups and their content and setups. At a point when many "newsrooms" consist of someone posting from a coffeehouse, car or kitchen table, how do they organize and operate in day-to-day real time?

For Baristanet, real time means early mornings and late nights. Erika Bleiberg, who runs the site five days a week, typically starts around 7 a.m. from her home office, aiming for a first post by 9. She checks overnight messages, police blotter items and emergency alerts that arrive electronically. One day, an item in a local paper inspired an idea, and she rushed out of the house, in her pajamas, she claims, to get a photo.

She works through the day, whether at home or a coffee shop or on the go, trying to post about every 90 minutes. She'll walk the dog, go to the gym and spend time with her daughter, but she's usually back at her computer after dinner, taking time to plan the coming day, and sometimes returns to work later in the evening, reading the 75 or so e-mails that arrive daily. In her so-called spare time, she volunteers one shift a week as an emergency medical technician and crew chief, which doesn't hurt with keeping up with the local buzz.

Like Galant, she wants the site to have a "cool factor" that combines hard news with the quirky and fun. A typical day's postings include police, fire and court items, some government coverage, some video, lots of photos (caption contests are popular) and loads of local color.

When Montclair resident and baseball legend Yogi Berra appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated recently, Galant wrote a small piece about "our 86-year-old hometown hero," then invited readers to submit stories about him. The site lit up. One person told of running into Yogi at Walgreens, another of riding a bike to his house as a kid and knocking on the door. Someone else reported that his wife had almost run over Yogi in a parking lot.

With laptops and smartphones, Bleiberg, Galant and site co-owner Liz George can work from anywhere within a sniff of Wi-Fi. They've posted from library benches, front porches, hospitals, even vacation spots like Cape Cod. On the day I visit, they're in the downtown tea house next door to the Blue Bubbles Laundromat and across from Dan's Hats and Caps.

Like editors everywhere, they gripe that city officials haven't alerted them to a big story, debate what items should lead the page and wrestle with local ethical issues (they tend to leave out the names, for instance, of people arrested for "nuisance crimes"). They consider themselves part of the community, even entering a float in the July 4 parade. As Bleiberg tosses a phone assignment to a freelancer, Galant butts in to say, "Tell her to have fun with it."

But Baristanet is atypical in one big way. Founded in 2004, it makes money thanks to local ads, enough to pay co-owners Galant and George, daily editor Bleiberg plus a graphic designer, bookkeeper, accountant and Web developer, as well as a salesperson working on commission. Galant has written for the New York Times and authored three novels (on sale in the local used bookstore), Bleiberg produced educational films and wrote for an ad agency, and George continues to handle special sections for New York's Daily News. They also pay around a dozen regular freelancers, and this summer had five unpaid, part-time interns. The site gets about 9,000 visits a day and 80,000 unique viewers a month.

They have a partner site (kids.baristanet.com,), and Galant helped found authenticallylocal.com, a network of hyperlocals devoted to "supporting homegrown media, stores and places."

Competitors exist, including a local weekly, some specialty pages and nearby Patch sites, but except for the occasional muttered aside "The mayor doesn't like us but he likes Patch," Galant grumbles while chasing one story the Baristanetters seem content with their chosen niche.

By contrast, Patch wants to be everywhere, or so it seems. Perhaps the fastest-growing news operation in America, the AOL-owned Patch has exploded from its three original hyper-locals in February 2009 to a juggernaut that, as of mid-August, deployed nearly 1,000 journalists in 857 sites in 22 states plus Washington, D.C. By year's end, it hopes to total 1,200 journalists at more than 1,000 sites.

Andre Taylor is local editor for Patch's Falls Church, Virginia, site, launched last December.

At 6'4" the former Temple University football player is hard to miss as he cruises through the local farmers market, sets up shop at Starbucks or chats up teenagers, police officers and retirees in local eateries. He operates from his car, leaving home with phone, laptop and video camera by 8 a.m. most days, not back till 6:30 or so. He'll post six to eight items typically, covering police, government, politics, sports, the arts and more.

He runs the site himself, with backup from Patch's regional editors and help from a handful of local freelancers.

The site includes news, features, blogs, reader comments, a reader-generated calendar and more. It isn't meant to be comprehensive, but Taylor tries to jump on local news, especially crime and traffic, and to capture a sense of place. Since moving to Falls Church in the Washington, D.C., suburbs from nearby Maryland a year ago, Taylor has busied himself trying to learn what makes the city distinctive.

"I spend a lot of time learning the people, the lingo, just the personality of the place," Taylor says. "Falls Church news is about family, it's about arts. It's very warming to know people still care about that kind of journalism day-to-day neighborhood things."

That goal is echoed by Douglas Tallman, a regional editor overseeing a dozen Patches in the Washington area.

"I'd most like to see articles that mean a lot to the community," says Tallman, who has nearly 30 years' experience in community journalism. "We want some fairly significant coverage dialed down into each community... If it's two items a day, OK. If it's four, OK. If it's 10, OK."

Patch also features video, with few worries about broadcast-level quality. "We want a lot of video. We want a lot of pictures. We know those are things people like," Tallman says. "What we find fascinating in video doesn't have to come from the finely coiffed, made-up anchor anymore."

Both Taylor and Tallman contend that having reporters operate by foot and car helps Patch writers fit in.

"We are part of the community," Tallman says. "We don't have a building for them to work in. We don't have an office for them to plant their butts in.

"People are hungry for information about their communities. It's interesting to show up at a Starbucks and pull out my laptop, which has a Patch logo on it, and people will come over and say, 'Hey, I read your site every day.' "

Situated somewhere between the local editor and the regional supervisor is Patch associate editor Lauren Sausser, who works as a "floating editor" doing vacation relief or pinch-hitting duties in the region.

Like many colleagues, Sausser works out of her apartment, making early morning phone checks before heading out to report. She'll post from her couch or her car or anywhere else that is handy.

She especially likes topics that generate user comments biking, for example. "Your readers are one of your biggest assets," Sausser says. "People love to be engaged."

Her interpretation of the Patch goal: "the best stories that are happening that day. I'm not just talking about hard news. I mean features and events and a mixture of all of it. I want people to read it and for it to be meaningful to people, and for them to trust us as their local news source."

For various reasons, Patch attracts a fair amount of hostility in the blogosphere and sniping from competitors. This summer Slate media writer Jack Shafer dismissed its "blandness and thinness" and called it "advertorialish and amateurish."

Several startup site editors I interviewed likened it to Walmart, a giant outside-run supersite competing with the local boutiques. "They're doing very similar things to what we're doing," says Baristanet's Debbie Galant. "They're just doing it in a very corporate way. They have a corporate identity that is milder and less controversial."

Certainly the operation has a corporate feel. When I approached local Patch editors for on-the-record interviews, for example, they quickly kicked the requests to their New York public relations office for approval.

But, once permission was granted, at ground level the Patch editors tended to shrug off the corporate fog and focus on their world of daily journalism. AOL officials have said that Patch is meeting its revenue goals so far and that some Patch sites should be profitable by the end of the year.

"Our whole model," says Tallman, "isn't to compete against what is already in the community, but to amplify. We want to be a trusted news source in the community and to cover issues with as much depth as we can."

Most hyperlocals, of course, don't have Patch's hierarchical structure or Baristanet's cadre of seasoned pros. Lots are steaming forward on the energy of one or two stalwarts.

Chappaqua, New York, community activists Susie Pender and Christine Yeres started NewCastleNOW.org with a grant from American University-based J-Lab: The Institute for Inter-active Journalism in 2007 and now manage to sustain themselves modestly with ad sales with an unusual model. They follow the newspaper practice and "publish" online twice a week, on Friday and Monday, transmitting free to some 3,000 e-mail addresses in a community of about 6,000 households.

They, too, work from their homes. They toyed with opening a storefront as a "place where people can drop in for a chat," but have decided for now that "we are out there at community events, so we don't need a physical location.

"Our joke is that Christine and I have a pajama party every Thursday night," Pender says. "She has it at her house, and I have it at mine."

They entered the hyperlocal business out of concern that citizens weren't getting the full story on local issues. Their goal: "pushing out the news so that people can become involved."

The site heavily covers public affairs in Chappaqua, one of two major hamlets making up New Castle, New York. It reports on city councils, school boards, fire commissions and the like, along with religion, health, sports and community events. Links go to traffic, commuting and weather information. The two co-owners do most of the news reporting, with unpaid citizen journalists writing feature stories.

Pender, an attorney who edited an American Lawyer Media monthly newsletter, edits everything "with an iron red pen."

"We don't just throw up what people write," she says.

The site emphasizes analysis, commentary and interactivity. "I think there is a place for what I'd call our more analytical approach." Pender says. "People say to us, 'I read your article and feel like I have the whole story.' " Pender feels happy co-existing with local Patch sites. "We do something different. A very frequent e-mail to me is, 'I read something in Patch. Can you go find out more about it?' "

But with so much work done by the two co-owners and a Webmaster, Pender recognizes the long-term challenge. Asked about the site's next step, she replies, "So we can keep going. We just need to make more money so we don't keep doing this as a charity."

Another duo devoted to local public affairs coverage is the wife-husband team of Mary Morgan and Dave Askins, who publish the Ann Arbor Chronicle in Michigan.

Their niche is in-depth stories about local government, featuring detailed coverage of that dreaded staple: the meeting. Morgan ticks off the list: city council, county board, park advisory commission, library board, transportation authority, university board of regents, school board, downtown development authority.

"We go to those meetings," says Morgan, a former reporter and editor for the local daily. "We place high priority on actually being where things are happening. We don't parachute in to find a sexy story. We report out a lot of gory details.

"We have maybe in a given week a dozen articles. For us, a 3,000-word article seems kind of short."

One recent day the site led with a 4,300-word report on a school board meeting, recording everything from public and board suggestions for dealing with a controversial athletic budget deficit to congratulations to a recent high school grad who contributed a crossword puzzle to the New York Times (one board member admitting the puzzle was too hard for him).

Morgan and Askins work out of a home office but also have access to shared space in a Main Street building, where they use a conference room for interviews. But their setup, too, has a twist. Neither owns a car. Morgan zips around town by scooter, Askins by bike.

They opened the site in 2008, not long before the local daily paper, the Ann Arbor News now called Ann Arbor.com announced it was moving to Web-first publication with just two print editions per week. Morgan says her site isn't trying to keep up with the more comprehensive model. "It's more of a churnalism model... We're not competing with them. We're competing on the news that we can provide."

The Chronicle gets about 30,000 unique visitors a month, and ad sales and volunteer subscriptions have supported the couple to "a fairly modest lifestyle" for the past two years. But the pace is demanding, Morgan admits.

"One of the biggest challenges is stamina. It is a startup, and like any startup it takes a great amount of work and commitment. We work every day. We haven't taken a vacation in three years. You get up in the morning and you're doing Chronicle stuff, and the City Council can last until midnight on a regular basis. Twelve- to 16-hour days are not unusual."

Hyperlocal editors resist comparisons to traditional community newspapers, which certainly had and in many cases still have a different feel and sense of purpose.

But similarities do exist and are often acknowledged.

At West Seattle Blog, co-publisher/editor Tracy Record says, "We operate a whole lot like every news organization I ever worked for except on a smaller scale in terms of people."

Record and her husband, Patrick Sand, run the site, and together they have extensive backgrounds in newspapers, radio and television. They go to meetings, fish for neighborhood news, comb through press releases and gather police reports as community editors have always done, producing 12 to 15 items a day from bake sales to fires to council reports.

"It's a big hodgepodge of daily life stuff," Record says. But they also receive photos from readers of everything from breaking news to wildlife. They let citizens submit their own crime reports, and Record and Sand videotape many meetings, posting video that sometimes draws 1,000 viewers.

It is, Record says, "a new way of doing the old model."

One obvious change is the ease of reader participation, as items come in by e-mail, text message, Twitter and Facebook. Record says the enthusiasm has surprised her.

"The part we never would have guessed is how much people want to share information, whether it's that their home has been burglarized or their kid's team has won a swim meet."

West Seattle, which Record describes as a distinctive peninsula of 80,000-plus people, provides a critical mass of community sensibility and advertising/readership potential. The site averages 31,000 daily pageviews, and the couple has made a living from it for the past three years.

They, too, work from home, Sand handling much of the business side from his desk in a utility room, Record posting from the living room. But they, too, often perch on park benches, hit the coffee shops and post from curbside at developing stories. She estimates she's at home about half the time, outside the other half.

"My husband is an early bird," Record says, "and I'm a night owl. So there isn't much time that goes uncovered."

Day after day, these hyperlocal sites and hundreds more scramble to succeed and sustain themselves. There is now more momentum than ever for online local news. But so far no single golden model has emerged.

When we browse for information, we don't go to the Neighborhood Wide Web. Instead, we reach for the "world," via clouds, networks, portals and other boulevards that suggest vastness.

Where, then, in this cosmos of coverage, does hyperlocal news fit?

Some suggest that it doesn't fit (see "Rolling the Dice," June/July 2007, and "The Hazards of Hyperlocal," Fall 2010). Slate's Jack Shafer, in his recent column criticizing Patch, argued that small-bore local news is "wildly expensive" and that readers prefer "hypercoverage of their interests sports teams, hobbies, food, vacations" over "the starving-artists exhibition at the farmer's market [or] increasing parking-meter rates."

Similarly, consultant Alan Mutter has called it "more hype than hope." He finds that audiences are small ("there is not that much compelling news about the average community in the average month"), expenses high and revenue low (the narrower your base, the fewer available advertisers).

The FCC, in a June report worrying about "the information needs of communities," concluded that "in many.. we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting... Most important, too few Internet-native local news operations have so far gained sufficient traction financially to make enough of an impact."

Things could be changing. Legacy local media continue trying to produce diverse sites, and more and more startups are experimenting with multiple niches. The more we rely on online sources for the rest of our information, the more likely it seems we will migrate there for local news too.

Tracy Record, of West Seattle Blog, likes the odds.

"A lot of this is in its infancy," she points out, "and you will see it get better and better."