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From time to time, I’ll give an overview of one broad MediaShift topic, annotated with online resources and plenty of tips. The idea is to help you understand the topic, learn the jargon, and take action. I’ve already covered blogging, citizen journalism, widgets and other topics. This week I’ll look at hyper-local news.

What Is It?

Hyper-local news is the information relevant to small communities or neighborhoods that has been overlooked by traditional news outlets. Thanks to cheap self-publishing and communication online, independent hyper-local news sites have sprung up to serve these communities, while traditional media has tried their own initiatives to cover what they’ve missed. In some cases, hyper-local sites let anyone submit stories, photos or videos of the community, with varying degrees of moderation and filtering. Pioneers such as Northwest Voice in Bakersfield, Calif., and YourHub, which started in Denver, actually reverse publish select material from their websites in print publications. Both of them are run by mainstream newspaper publishers.

The motivation for starting independent hyper-local sites is often to tell the previously untold stories of communities, while also bringing like-minded people together online. Mainstream news outlets that have created hyper-local sites are trying to engage their readers, while also creating a place for smaller, niche advertisers who want to reach a highly geographically targeted audience.

The business models for hyper-local news sites are still evolving, and some independent sites are run as labors of love by their publishers and communities. Venture-funded startups Backfence and Bayosphere tried and failed to make a business out of creating a series of hyper-local sites, while Pegasus News was recently bought by Fisher Communications.

Methods for Collecting Hyper-Local News

In the past few years, people have used a variety of methods to capture hyper-local news, from assigning professional journalists to hyper-local beats to collecting stories from interested citizens, to a combination of the two. In terms of presentation, the storytelling format has included everything from articles and videos to blogs, wikis, and annotated maps. The following is a list of some of the ways that traditional and independent media have gathered hyper-local news.

Self-moderated citizen media
Perhaps the least work-intensive approach to a hyper-local news site is simply allowing people to post their stories with minimal moderation. The moderation could depend on users flagging submissions as inappropriate, or on a publisher who might check the site for obscenities or spam. A common challenge with these sites is getting people to contribute content on a regular basis, and then filtering or highlighting the best material.

Strengths: Open format invites more participants.

Weaknesses: Takes hard work to get people to contribute; varying quality of submissions.

Examples: Philly Future, BeniciaNews.com, IndyMoms, iBrattleboro, NowPublic

Reverse publishing citizen media in print
Many sites ask people to tell the stories of their community, either with text, photos or videos. But if the site is associated with a traditional news outlet — most likely a local newspaper — there are usually more stringent rules for moderation. Eventually the best of the online content is reverse published into a regular print publication that goes out to people who live in that community. Professional editors might eliminate submissions that contain libelous or offensive content, and could spend time filtering and highlighting important issues.

Strengths: Higher quality content and filtering of stories; increased distribution in print with more ad revenues.

Weaknesses: Contributors don’t get equal exposure across platforms, and the excerpted content may exclude some points of view.

Examples: Northwest Voice, YourHub, Bluffton Today

Involved proprietors on blogs
Rather than opening up the editorial to citizens, many place-specific blogs are written by people who review local happenings with a unique voice. These blogs might include polls or comments so others can contribute, but the main focus is on the voice of the bloggers. Some of these blogs cover small suburban areas, while others are focused on urban life.

Strengths: Stronger editorial voice and consistent publishing schedule vs. citizen media efforts.

Weaknesses: Personal viewpoint does not represent the variety of voices in a community.

Examples: H2otown, Baristanet, Gothamist network, Metroblogging network, WestportNow

Aggregation sites
These sites include very few original stories, and simply aggregate and link to stories found on other news outlets or blogs for that locality. Some do include ways for people in the community to share their views on stories with comments or forums. Topix, for example, has had success reaching small rural areas by being the only online outlet for news in those communities.

Strengths: Low overhead and largely automated operations.

Weaknesses: Not enough local flavor or voice, except through outside links.

Examples: Topix, Placeblogger, Outside.in

Annotated maps
Sometimes a map — rather than a news article or commentary — can give people a better idea of what’s going on in their neighborhood at a quick glance. Adrian Holovaty’s ground-breaking ChicagoCrime site lets you slice and dice the city by neighborhoods to see what types of crimes have been committed there. Other news organizations and startups have done the same by using customizable Google Maps.

Strengths: Shows people very quickly what is happening in their specific geographic location.

Weaknesses: Maps often don’t give enough context and depth, and navigation is often difficult.

Examples: ChicagoCrime.org, YourStreet, San Diego County Fires — KPBS

Mobile journalism
A few traditional news organizations are experimenting with having their reporters go out as “one-man bands” who write up quick reports, take photographs or video and file them from the road. Gannett has tried to do more coverage of community events, while Reuters is working with Nokia to outfit reporters with gear to get raw footage of live events as they happen.

Strengths: Quick coverage of more events on the fly.

Weaknesses: Lower quality video and photos; not enough time for thoughtful work.

Examples: Reuters Mobile Journalism, Gannett’s MoJos

Email lists and online forums
Perhaps the most overlooked way that communities can stay in touch and share news is through email lists and online forums. Many of these are ad hoc lists created by citizens, with the content coming directly from them. These email lists let you get a daily digest of all the content in one email and allow you to respond or post your own items. The subject matter can be instensely local to your neighborhood,

Strengths: Very local information helps neighbors get to know each other.

Weaknesses: Usually not a lot of moderation so content quality can be low.

Examples: Front Porch Forums, DCWatch

Evolving Business Models

While no one disputes that the Internet and new technology can help small geographical communities share news, the open question is whether these connections will lead to profitability for news organizations or startups. And what’s also unclear is whether independent startups have an advantage or disadvantage to existing traditional local news outlets. Northwest Voice and YourHub have been financially successful for their parent news organizations, but most of their revenue comes from reverse-published print editions. Hyper-local startups with venture capital funding such as Backfence and Bayosphere have flamed out because they couldn’t get enough locals online — and the advertising to support their businesses.

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YourStreet map of San Francisco news

Two newer hyper-local startups, YourStreet and EveryBlock, are aiming to use more aggregation and annotated maps to show what’s happening in a locale, without having high-cost editorial from reporters. But there remains a tough balancing act between using amateur or automated information and on-the-ground reporting by professional journalists. Journalist Steve Outing, who helped start The Enthusiast Group as a series of niche sites about sports, wrote about his lessons learned when his business failed and how that could apply to hyper-local sites:

We believed that having a core level of professional content — from our site editors — would be enough to attract a loyal following even if the user-submitted content wasn’t enough on its own. But I think we didn’t have nearly enough of that. If I had any money left to throw at the business, I’d hire more well-known athletes and adventurers, so that the core was a larger pool of professional content — and I’d mix that in with the best user content.

I’m not saying that user-submitted content isn’t worthwhile, let me be clear about that. I am saying that I think you can’t rely too much on it. And you need to filter out and highlight the best user content, while downplaying the visibility of the mediocre stuff.

While the online business model is being sorted out, newspaper publishers have been making money by selling print ads into special editions that are stocked with the best of the online content. Travis Henry, the editor of YourHub at the Rocky Mountain News, wrote about that paper’s experience running various hyper-local news sites since 2005:

YourHub has registered over 34,000 members in the Denver metro area alone. We have 18 print sections just in Colorado. YourHub is now live in eight states and poised to launch in more, admittedly with varied results. In Colorado alone we have more than 3,000 stories posted a month and more than 3,000 events a month. Our biggest achievement has been the creation of an awesome online community that has become a large family of sorts. User gatherings we have held have been powerful and prove that this is an experiment worth going forward.

We have been in the black since our first year. Most of our revenue comes from print advertising.

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YourHub’s Travis Henry

J-Lab, an incubator of news experiments at the University of Maryland, conducted a survey of 191 hyper-local sites in early 2007 found that most sites are simply labors of love, funded by founders who are not out to make a fortune. Of those surveyed, 51% said they don’t need money to keep the operation going, and 42% said revenues didn’t cover their expenses. But they were largely happy with the local impact their sites had made, with 73% saying their sites were successful.

Whether hyper-local sites are run as an adjunct to a traditional media outlet, run as a labor of love or non-profit, what’s most important for the public’s interest is that the community feels connected to a news source or website that engages them and lets them discuss intensely local issues.

Resources

To learn more about hyper-local news sites, check out these news articles and blog posts:

Co-Founder Potts Shares Lessons Learned from Backfence Bust at MediaShift

Blogging Places in Kairos

Citizen Media — Fad or the Future of News? at KCNN

Facebook Goes Hyper-Local with Neighborhoods at Lost Remote blog

Front Porch Forum Fans Adore Hyper-Local Email Reports at MediaShift

Hartsville Today — The first year of a small-town citizen-journalism site at KCNN

Hyper-Local Citizen Media Sites Learn How to Serve Small Communities at MediaShift

Insider info puts city blogs on the map at USA Today

Is YourHub.com Dead? at YourHub Denver

Mobile Journalism on Moving Ground at Poynter

A Newspaper Chain Sees Its Future, And It’s Online and Hyper-Local at the Washington Post

Papers take a leap forward, opening up to new ideas at USA Today

Really Local at American Journalism Review

The important lessons of Backfence’s closing at Terry Heaton’s PoMo blog

The Washington Post to Trade in Hyperlocal News on the Web at the New York Times

What do you think about online hyper-local news efforts so far? Which ones do you follow in your neighborhood or community? What business model do you think will work? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE: Some people have written in the comments that their sites were miscategorized in the “Methods” section above or that their site doesn’t fall neatly into one of the categories. I guess that’s a common problem when you try to categorize sites that are evolving and combining so many different methodologies at once.

For instance, Lisa Williams of H2otown says that her site does include citizen contributions, though she tries to post three times per day on weekdays. I would still consider her to be an “involved proprietor” and her voice does dominate it. KOB believes that the DCBlogs site not only provides an automated feed of local bloggers but also builds community as well. And David Bullard at Fulton Daily News says that his sites are a hybrid between “involved proprietor” and citizen media.

I’m sure there are many more sites that don’t neatly fit into the categories above, but I still defend those categories as a way to grok the way hyper-local news sites have operated so far. I’m sure that will continue to change over time, so stay tuned, and keep the comments coming.

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