The New York Times is going into the hyper-local news business, as reported by Zachary Seward at the NiemanJournalismLab. It is just one example of hyper-local — also called community journalism, beat reporting, or representative journalism — in action. Other instances include Kennesee State university Professor Leonard Witt’s Representative Journalism in Georgia and community news site Patch.com. It’s not clear how successful the Times’ move to start hyper-local blogs will be, since, as long as a strategy is web only, it’s going to be hard to get to sustainability.

If, on the other hand, journalists stop overlooking the power of news-on-paper to generate income, any of these directions can earn enough revenue to support themselves. (Generating enough money to pay back the debts of over-leveraged newspaper companies is a much harder problem.)

Selling Local Ads in Local Papers Works

Jim Schachter, editor for digital initiatives at the New York Times, explained the problem with a web-only strategy:

If every single person who lives in Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Maplewood, Millburn, and South Orange came to these sites every day and made one impression, that would be about 120,000 impressions a day…It is barely enough to create a ripple in a pond and not enough to be profitable.

But community newspapers with small circulations have been doing okay even during this deep recession.

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Photo by Alex Barth

Consider David Black, the 62-year-old Canadian publisher who owns and manages Black Press. I’ve mentioned him before as an example of a successful print entrepreneur, as he has added 170 publications to his business since he started out in 1975. David Black is not a journalist. He is a business man with a degree in engineering and an MBA. He has succeeded where many heavily leveraged public newspaper companies have failed. According to the Seattle Weekly:

Most people living in the Puget Sound region couldn’t tell you who David Holmes Black is. But this month, around a million households in Washington will have a Black-owned newspaper land in their front yard, or those householders will pick one up at the local 7-Eleven so they can see which local kid won the Soap Box Derby or check the classifieds for a ’77 Camaro.

That’s 32 different newspapers reaching an average of 31,250 households each. Administrative and business functions are organized in central clusters, but editorial is “local, local, local” with no significant editorial direction from the center. With modern print technology, this could be reframed as a 1,000,000 press run, broken into 32 versions going out to 32,500 each.

Some hyper-local websites have also been able to turn a profit by producing print versions of their top stories — examples include YourHub and Bluffton Today. One of the earliest and most innovative of hyper-local sites, the Northwest Voice in Bakersfield, Calif., was founded in 2004 by the Bakersfield Californian and is still going strong, reverse-printing its top stories and delivering the print edition to homes in the Bakersfield area. (For more information, see MediaShift’s guide to hyper-local news.)

In 2007, the Washington Post made its own foray into hyper-local news with LoudounExtra.com, a website focused on Loudoun County, Virginia. This site has so far failed to engage the community it purports to serve, a problem that has been blamed both on poor linking by the Washington Post and a site staffed by community outsiders. The lack of a print component may also have hindered the effort’s ability to connect with local readers.

The Newspaper Association of America reports that the Chicago Tribune’s Triblocal.com uses Kodak’s Microzone Publishing Solution to create 35 websites and eight weekly newspapers catering to diverse, hyper-local neighborhoods in suburban Chicago. The full run of the eight weeklies is 100,000. In the language of “versioned print,” that means eight versions, 12,500 each.

The Problem with Pricing and the Sales Process

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Triblocal’s managing editor Kyle Leonard says that advertisers have not been as responsive to Triblocal as have readers, but this isn’t because of any inherent problem with hyper-local news-on-paper. Rather, it’s a problem with having a heavily leveraged corporation with too many levels of middle management and an ad sales process that is optimized for large advertisers and a monopoly market.

As journalism is going through fundamental changes, the system for selling print ads is mired in the past. For print ads to activate the presently under-served large market of small business, it means ad sales people will need to be accessible to small and micro-business people for a quick conversation to do the deal. Few small and micro-businesses have the time to focus to buy on the Internet.

What will Google do?

Google made a first run at fixing the news-on-paper ad problem, but recently abandoned the effort. Given Google’s past history, that means there is a team in place working on version 2.0. In my opinion, the company may have failed to appreciate that a physical space-defined community is about people in real space talking to other people in real space.

Google has recently announced a resellers program for Google Apps. Perhaps version 2.0 of Google Print Ads will include a reseller program: Google can supply the tech, while the publisher, or start-up, facilitates the face-to-face sales process on the ground. A publisher, or start-up, might hire freelancers and/or recent graduates to stop by at every local business and drop off the rate card. If there is interest, they can turn a business card into a print ad. When the ad is done, they can come back to the store with various pricing options.

Of course, this is a road well traveled by web companies such as Microsoft Sidewalk and CitySearch in their attempt to get small businesses to sign up for local online ads. The difficulty each one faced was the same: to sell ads in communities, they need to have a persistent local sales force that can go out and press the flesh and evangelize. And no one — not Google, not Yahoo, not anyone, has cracked that nut. The various Yellow Pages companies have made some inroads.

Multi-channel marketing for small business

How could a newspaper use hyper-local to get more than advertising dollars? Imagine a team composed of a commercial print sales person, a newspaper ad salesperson, and a graphic designer. That could be just the disruptive innovation that brings a huge new population into the local advertising marketplace. Add a local TV/radio person to the mix and all the elements are there.

One contact person to customize a marketing campaign that works — in print and the web and on local broadcast media. Of course, the price has to be right for the customer, but newspaper ads will be a lot less than a run-of-the-issue ad campaign from a major brand. But consider that at a time before Craigslist, those small item classified print ads were the most profitable revenue stream for most newspapers.

Michael Josefowicz spent 30 years at Red Ink Productions, a boutique print production brokerage he co-founded which served New York-based design studios and non-profit organizations. He came out of retirement to teach production at Parsons The New School for Design for the next 7 years. He now blogs about print at Print in the Communication Ecology and about the digital printing industry at Tough Love for Xerox.

Photo of newspaper by Iaffy4K via Flickr.

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