I got a polite earful this morning from Howard Owens in response to my column from yesterday about hyperlocal sites. Owens, who runs the hyperlocal site The Batavian in Batavia, N.Y., posted his criticism in the comments section below, and I've taken the liberty of turning Owens' comment into a sidebar.
Owens takes issue with my position that none of the hyperlocal sites can claim journalistic success, maintaining that The Batavian is an unqualified journalistic success, as are West Seattle Blog, suburban New Jersey's Baristanet, "and a few of the other 'authentically local' news sites sprinkled around the country." He knocks me for citing no data in my curt dismissal of hyperlocal journalism (criticism accepted) and rejects my view that hyperlocal's real traffic competitor is social sites like Facebook.
He also distances The Batavian and the other "authentically local" news sites from what Patch is doing, which is completely fair. They are better than AOL's well-funded Patch, which, as the largest hyperlocal site, was the focus of my piece. But "better" is relative. According to the Columbia Journalism Review,The Batavian "operates with a skeleton staff" of Owens, his wife, two part-time employees, and paid freelancers, making its editorial output modest. The site concentrates on the crime blotter, arrests and sentencings, a few "reader polls," short human-interest pieces, and civic miscellanea.
I couldn't improve the site if Owens gave me the keys, so I'm not denigrating what he produces on a budget. (Owens told CJR the site generated between $100,000 and $150,000 in revenues in 2010 but declined to divulge the costs of running the site.) Nor am I saying that no hyperlocal site ever produces copy worth reading. The independent site in my town, the very energetic ARLnow.com, files about 10 short pieces a day drawn from local government press releases, other media, the police scanner, the police blotter, other local sources, and its own enterprise. Hardly a day goes by that I don't look at it on my RSS reader. But I'm a news obsessive.
One of the commenters below, my friend the press critic and journalism teacher Dan Kennedy, writes that "you could have substituted a typical local weekly newspaper for Patch [in your critique] and said the same thing. Would you have?" Well, yes, I would. My local weekly, the Sun Gazette, has been shrinking steadily in recent months, and as best as I can tell it shares editorial and advertising problems with the hyperlocal sites: too much competition for people's attention and better places for targeted advertising. Looking especially prescient about hyperlocal news right now is Paul Farhi, whose June/July 2007 piece in American Journalism Reviewdoubted that the sites would succeed.
Writing about Patch, Judy Sims points out the hyperlocal sites seem to ignore the recent "unbundling of news and advertising." Her argument, which I second, holds that local advertisers bought ads adjacent to news content because that's where the eyeballs were—and because there were very few alternatives for their ad dollars. Not so now.
Sims recommends the Patch ditch its local sites and go vertical on content to chase specialty advertising. A local bridal site could sell ads to the bridal business, she suggests, and AOL national sites about parenting, autos, food, and gadgets would allow users to "drill down" to see local content, listings, and ads.
The hyperlocal cemetery—where Bayosphere; the Washington Post's LoudounExtra; Allbritton's TBD; Backfence; and the New York Times' New Jersey experiment, "The Local" are taking the dirt nap—got a new tenant today, as Gannett folded hyperlocal venture InJersey. Hyperlocal aggregator Outside.In would probably be resting there, too, had not AOL/Patch purchased it earlier this year for less than $10 million after investors dropped $14.4 million into building it.
Former Slate intern Brad Flora, CEO of NowSpots and founder of WindyCitizen, a Chicago news-aggregation site powered by readers, shared a few of his thoughts about hyperlocal journalism after reading my piece. Flora is so much smarter than I am on this topic that I'll let him finish my piece for me.
"The bootstrapped approach like Baristanet and West Seattle Blog can work where you've got 1-2 amazing people who can write stories, build a community, and sell ads. Big companies have tried very hard to ape their success at scale, but without too much success," Flora says.