AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2007

Really Local   

Gannett and other media companies are embracing “hyperlocal” Web sites as a new way of engaging fleeing readers.

By Donna Shaw
Donna Shaw (shaw@tcnj.edu) is an AJR contributing writer.     

In Mesa, Arizona, several neighbors are feuding over a limousine company that's allegedly being operated out of one family's upscale home. In Lebanon, Ohio, an artist is exhibiting her quilts in a local coffee shop. Visitors can stick around for a wine tasting. And in Noblesville, Indiana, new mother Leigh Anne is concerned about her 6-month-old son's oddly shaped head.

Not exactly the stuff of headlines, you say? Then you haven't been following one of the hottest trends in journalism, known as "hyperlocal" news.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, like the Neighbors sections of newspapers, it's more like Neighbors on steroids. The most innovative hyperlocal Web operations have strong database and video components, multiplatform tools and accessibility, and far more reader input and interaction.

There's no official definition, but generally a hyperlocal news site (also known as local-local or microsite) is devoted to the stories and minutiae of a particular neighborhood, ZIP code or interest group within a certain geographic area. Such sites have been springing up on the Internet for some time now, initially as independent startups, created and maintained as labors of love by founders who work on a shoestring budget (see Drop Cap, December/January). Other sites are making money (although generally not a lot) by offering inexpensive advertising space for local businesses--the mom-and-pop restaurants, dry cleaners and crafts shops that can't afford to advertise in citywide publications. Some hyperlocal sites have content produced at least in part by paid, professional journalists. Many others don't.

It's a development that has captured the attention of large media companies, which are on the prowl for opportunities to create revenue streams and lure readers, and has spurred a number of them to start experimenting. In addition to offering blanket coverage of a community, the approach can help journalists build stronger relationships with readers, who contribute ideas and expertise. But it also has the potential to trivialize a media organization's brand and further saturate news sites with myopic local (and frequently unedited) content, perhaps at the expense of foreign and national reporting.

To keep that from happening, the hyperlocal approach necessitates care and thoughtfulness, according to John S. Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun. He sees it as "well worth exploring" but difficult to deliver in terms of matching the quality of the primary news product. "I'm not saying it's a bad idea, but if it's executed without sufficient investment, it will hurt the paper and harm society," he says.

When Carroll arrived in Los Angeles in 2000, the Times was publishing neighborhood inserts called "Our Times," which stressed local news but, to his mind, diminished the L.A. Times. "People perceived the paper to be a large, sophisticated metropolitan paper, and within that paper, they were receiving these fairly shoddily edited and shoddily reported neighborhood papers, which led to a dissonance," he says. "People read it and said, 'What kind of paper is this?'"

Rob Curley, the hyperlocal guru who in October joined Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive as vice president of product development, thinks newspapers can tackle these projects while maintaining quality. His team is just starting to show off some of its innovations, with more to come soon: Curley is keeping most of the details under wraps. "Journalists hold the papers like the Washington Post up as, 'This is what great reporting looks like.' But if you live in Washington, this is your local paper," he says. "So covering local stories is an honorable profession."

If it takes hold, the hyperlocal movement means some fundamental, groundbreaking changes in the way traditional journalism is conducted. Many media chains are beefing up their online local ventures, but in terms of sheer numbers of news-papers involved, no one is moving more aggressively than Gannett. The nation's largest chain by circulation (90 daily newspapers, including USA Today) will roll out its "local information center" approach division-wide by May 1. The shift reorganizes reporters and editors into a 24-7, multiplatform operation and invites readers to be among its eyes and ears.

"There's so many other places you can get Anna Nicole Smith," says Michael Maness, Gannett's vice president of strategic planning. "Our role is to become even more vital by focusing on the hyperlocal."

Gannett's new approach will usher in many more hyperlocal sites, some organized strictly by geography and others by interest groups. Local communities will get their own Web pages, and so will mothers of young children. (It was at one of those sites, the Indianapolis Star's IndyMoms.com, that Leigh Anne learned from other parents that her baby's head shape probably was no big deal.)

In a December 2006 presentation to Wall Street analysts, Sue Clark-Johnson, president of Gannett's newspaper division, said the strategy was developed last spring and tested at 12 newspapers. The results were "overwhelmingly positive," with Web traffic increases "double that of the base group." Gannett's other divisions, including USA Today and broadcast, are looking to adapt the approach, she said, noting that it "can be accomplished without additional resources."

While the information center requires professional journalists to work more closely than ever with the public, don't confuse that relationship with citizen journalism, in which readers play an active role in collecting and reporting the news, Maness says. "We are very careful to stay away from network or citizen journalism," he says. "In terms of doing news, you still need that professional journalist--people who can build on [readers'] leads."

One element of Gannett's model, Maness explains, involves "crowdsourcing"--asking readers for advice and expertise on certain stories--but still leaves the journalism to journalists. "The public recognizes what journalists do, and when we say, 'Be a journalist,' they don't know what that is. But when we ask for help, they're much more comfortable with that," he says.

In practice, the hyperlocal approach has meant more reader photos, videos and opinions, like the conversation involving the feuding neighbors in Arizona. But it's also led to some substantive journalism, as it did for the News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida, when the paper asked readers why local homeowners had to pay so much for new water and sewer hookups.

"Within three hours, they had a whistleblower," Maness says. "Eventually they had to put three investigative reporters on it because they had so many leads." The result: some 110 stories that led to a 30 percent reduction in the fees and the resignation of a local official. "All of this was enabled by the community," Maness adds. And just as important, "the way the community views the Fort Myers paper is that they are really a champion, a community watchdog."

Jan Schaffer, director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, says Gannett is "moving into a very creative zone," adding, "They've been able to articulate a vision.. and move forward on it."

In a February report, Schaffer concluded that new kinds of media companies are starting to emerge because of hyperlocal sites that fuse "news and schmooze." The J-Lab study is based on 31 in-depth interviews and a survey that garnered responses from 191 readers, contributors and site operators. Those responses may contain some lessons for media companies in search of elusive readers: Schaffer learned that many hyperlocal sites have sprung up in communities where citizens felt they weren't getting adequate coverage from local newspapers. Others said their towns used to get coverage but lost it as newspapers cut costs.

Now some hyperlocal independents boast that, as a result of their growing voices, the mainstream media companies are returning to their areas--and even considering whether the hyperlocal model might be profitable.

Schaffer thinks that journalists "may need to rethink their mission" and the kinds of products they want to develop for their various audiences. "The really successful [citizen] sites out there have a lot of naked caring and passion for community, and it's not what we journalists are comfortable with," Schaffer notes. So it's important to remember that the people participating in the hyperlocal citizen sites generally don't think of themselves as, or want to be, journalists--"they just want to get information about their communities." Schaffer thinks media companies would be wise to partner with these sites, tapping into the ideas and expertise of community members. "It's a bargain," she says.

Mark Potts, co-founder of the hyperlocal network Backfence.com, couldn't agree more. A journalist by trade (he worked at the Washington Post), he has no professionals writing for his sites, which number seven in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., three in the Chicago suburbs and another three outside San Francisco. On the Bethesda, Maryland, site, there's a review of a local sandwich shop ("With everyone on a first name basis, it's so relaxed and friendly"); on the site for Skokie, Illinois, there's a lively discussion about education.

Backfence.com was founded in 2004 (see "Dotcom Bloom," June/July 2005) and launched its first sites in 2005, but this year had to scale back. Potts says he is "very actively" pursuing partnership deals with several media companies. "I think the big media companies weren't ready for it, but in the last six months or so...they see this as something that they should be involved in," he says.

Like Maness, he sees a future in giving readers the local news they can't get anywhere else. He can read about Iraq or Iran or Britney Spears anywhere, Potts says, "but I can't find out about the local baseball team or where there's a good pizza restaurant... We're getting into something that's completely uninteresting to somebody five miles away."

For large media companies to be successful with this approach, Carroll thinks local-local would be better defined as "unique-unique"--that is, play to your strengths and provide truly newsworthy content that your publication is in the best position to provide. "In every area, there are unique things, stories that the local paper can dominate," he says. Examples: In Lexington, Kentucky, where Carroll now lives, the Herald-Leader (which he used to edit) should aspire to be the world's best source on University of Kentucky basketball and perhaps also thoroughbred horse breeding and the Appalachian coal business, he says. "Those aren't local-local--those actually have very broad interest, but they happen to be where the paper is situated."

Carroll says he's glad the Washington Post is experimenting with hyperlocal news "because it could help find the way out of the wilderness, or failing that, it will tell us where the path is or is not." But he thinks it would be foolish for the Post to follow what he sees as Gannett's lead and "try to cover every neighborhood in the D.C. area at the expense of what they do."

He continues: "My concern in reading about the Gannett initiative is that it will take manpower to do it, and it would be uncharacteristic of Gannett to add manpower. They're going to take manpower from somewhere...they may hit the neighborhoods, but they may miss the big picture."

Maness says that for Gannett, a chain made up mostly of smaller and medium-size newspapers, the emphasis on local news won't hurt national or foreign coverage, for example, because most of its papers are too small to have far-flung bureaus. What's more, he says, "there are strong opportunities for taking national stories and making them local," through their own reporters and the extensive databases they are compiling and putting online. So a statewide story on property taxes can be rewritten several times for different communities. "It can double or triple the views of that story," Maness says.

He knows that such ambitious plans may be met with skepticism and fear in some journalistic corners. His philosophy about the transition: "We should be engaged, not fighting it." He adds, "The role of the journalist is still to say, 'There's more here. And we're going to get it.'"

AJR contributing writer Donna Shaw (shaw@tcnj.edu) wrote about online scoops in the magazine's October/November issue.