The Problem with ‘Hyper-Local News’

RWW asks Why Haven’t Neighborhood News Technologies Worked Out? The answer is complex but it goes back to Outside.in founder Steven Johnson’s early post “The Pothole Paradox.” The core notion is one person’s interesting “hyper-local” news item is another person’s noise.

People care about national, international and local news. People don’t only care about local. In addition the phrase “local” is context-specific and variable depending on the situation; it’s a “scoping” problem. That elusive and dynamic notion of “local” has been part of what’s made it hard for dedicated local news/content sites to succeed.

It has also been difficult to put together the right mix of content in a highly competitive local segment. Local news sites can’t really compete with Google or IYPs or Yelp for service business information. The also don’t compete with Yahoo News or MSNBC or the NY Times for general news. What problem are they trying to solve exactly?

The “Tim Armstrong answer” is delivering community information. But that’s an abstraction. (It’s also expensive to do this at scale, which is part of why Patch bought Outside.in.)

The original thought was that local news was an area that was not commoditized to the degree that national and even international news largely were. The logic goes: that unique content would help differentiate sites that incorporated it from larger news brands and aggregators.

However the major news and non-news local search sites do a very good job of fulfilling a wide range of local needs (e.g., movie listings). There are also numerous verticals (e.g., Trulia) that can do a better job in their respective domains than most horizontal, “hyper-local” content sites. There’s simply a lot of competition.

Before Patch tried to deliver news and community content, including events, classifieds and business listings Backfence unsuccessfully tried something similar. In a different way so did the failed SmallTown. An example of a site that continues and has had success — although was hit by “Farmer” — is AmericanTowns.com. The site tries to be a fairly comprehensive community portal — an aspiration equally shared by Patch. The Farmer/Panda effect argues that SEO is not as viable a marketing strategy as it was for local sites.

Another significant challenge that has historically vexed many local/hyper-local players, including some mentioned above, is monetization. Everyblock really had no revenue model and had to sell itself when the Knight Foundation grant money ran out. Today there are relatively new local ad networks that can help support such sites but you still need a good deal of traffic to make it all work.

Accordingly, making a network of “hyper-local” community sites work requires a near-perfect mix of content, monetization and visibility, not to mention the right cost structure. All this requires experimentation, trial and error and a good deal of time and resources (and it still might not succeed). However few players have had all these or the staying power to give it a real go.

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13 Responses to “The Problem with ‘Hyper-Local News’”

  1. Miten Sampat says at

    Your analysis is pretty comprehensive, and belies the fundamental nature of the fact that on the internet it is very difficult to build a business for niche audiences.

  2. Rocky says at

    The other challenge with hyperlocal news is that there are plenty of people who are willing to do it for free because they care about it — and they don’t necessarily need your platform or distribution. 

    If you create a great local news/restaurant/event blog because you’re passionate about the topic, you’ll find an audience through search alone. An intermediary/aggregator doesn’t add a lot of value.

  3. Greg Sterling says at

    An aggregator can add value if they help you discover sites and content that you might not have discovered directly yourself.

  4. Juliemarg says at

    Have you seen the Sacramento Bee’s Sac Connect program? They plan to revenue share with blog members. They’ve recruited lots of local blogs to participate.

  5. Greg Sterling says at

    Julie:

    I wasn’t aware of it. Looks interesting. Many newspapers have/had local blogging and other local news/content programs. They are the natural ones to be doing a version of this. Because they have other content, ad sales, etc., many of the issues discussed above are addressed.

  6. matt says at

    Local newspapers do seem to be the natural platform for hyperlocal and sharing revenue with local bloggers seem to be a win win.

  7. Greg says at

    The SF Chronicle is doing something similar with some bloggers. However I haven’t really seen any compelling examples of content presentation/organization with newspapers. 

  8. Steven Clift says at

    Our experience with hosting local online communities is that the participants themselves are best generators of local information exchange.

    However, as a non-profit focused on sustainable exchange among local people – example http://e-democracy.org/se – with inclusion funding in a few places – http://e-democracy.org/inclusion – edited “news” is not something we see as economically viable from a volunteer-driven perspective. So what we get is “pre-news.” Some say talk is cheap and we say conversation is cost-effective – particularly when you combine real names, a solid expectation of civility, and volunteer-driven local facilitation.

    Unfortunately, the way online news organizations have embraced online news commenting results in drive-by posting by story, no community building, and at its worst the view by most people in the public that online news sites have designed to give the most extreme a voice over them.

  9. AOL acquires Outside.in for $10 million at Ghost of Midnight says at

    […] Good commentary going on about this acquisition and broader themes… here, here and elsewhere.  A concise analysis was offered in this tweet about mega-chains of hyperlocal […]

  10. TR says at

    The answer is stupefyingly obvious. THE ONLY REAL WORKABLE SCALE FOR HYPERLOCAL IS ONE BY ONE. You cannot commoditize, templatize, mass-produce this. It requires real human beings who are responsive and can continue molding their service based on that unique community’s interests and character. Sorry, been saying this a while.

  11. Seth Kaplan says at

    Every city and town in this country has at least one public access channel that broadcasts local-only news and community interest information. Also, local network affiliates broadcast a mix of news, although it’s weighted toward local news. That said, location will always be a driver for local search. After all, as Buckaroo Banzai once observed, no matter where you go, there you are.

  12. Pelham says at

    Another problem with hyperlocal is that it lacks passion.  No great philosophical questions arise, there’s nothing much to thunder about or rattle the walls, no solemn destiny to fulfill. 

  13. KirkH says at

    Why would a blogger want to share revenue with a newspaper when a free aggregator can also drive traffic to their site? And why would a newspaper drive traffic to a site they may eventually compete with?

    Newspapers can never be trusted aggregators because if blogs begin to get serious traffic and or criticize the newspaper, things will get ugly.

    You need independent 3rd party aggregators to level the playing field. Nobody has done it right just yet, give it a year.

  14. Ana says at

    The pothole paradox – very very interesting.

    My own attempt at overcoming it – http://www.localbyus.com

    Everything is geo-tagged to the latitude and longitude of choice – acting like a community notice board at the location. The tagger has to choose the most appropriate location. Then, the viewer can decide if they want to see within 10 mile radius or 100 mile radius from their location.

    Will be interesting to see if it works out. Please try and send me feedback.
    Thanks

  15. EveryBlock Shuts Down, Will Patch Be Next? says at

    […] problem isn’t consumer interest in “hyper-local” information — although the story there is complex — but the challenge of monetizing geographically narrow content sites. In order to make money […]

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