Hyperlocal: hard work and still not a business – 10 key takeaways
A great analysis of how to run hyperlocal news or community site has been published by Jan Schaffer, the director of the J-Lab at American University in Washington, DC, who whose fund has invested in 46 sites in the last five years.
More than a third of those the fund invested in between, as part of a project called New Voices, have closed and while those that persist do so because those who run and contribute to them do so for little or no reward.
The struggle to make hyperlocal of community journalism work is underscored by the likes of The New York Times and the Washington Post pulling the plug on their hyperlocal projects.
The NY Times has bounced back, but its latest venture The Local East Village uses only its name and content from NYU students. Although many others including the likes of AOL with Patch, Yahoo! and Gannett, which plans to launch more than 100 hyperlocal sites, are ploughing on.
According to Schaffer: “Again and again we’ve seen volunteer New Voices efforts that are sustaining themselves with little income.
“There is a mismatch between instilling sustainable civic demand for local news information and developing sustainable economic models. While most of the New Voices sites are exploring hybrid models of support, none is raising enough money to pay full salaries and benefits,” wrote Schaffer.
Some of the ventures the fun has backed are substantial such as The Forum, in Deerfield, N.H., which is five years old and has more than 350 contributors with 50 articles a week; there is the Daily Planet in the Twin Cities; New Castle NOW in New Castle, N.Y, which had 60,000 unique visitors as of the first 10 months of its third year and sold $90,000 in advertising; and the Oakland Local racked up 309,500 unique visitors in its first year and showed how important the use of social media was.
“The less robust projects were plagued by frequent turnover of key people or technological problems that delayed their launch. They update less frequently and struggle to generate content. Sometimes, they over-relied on training citizen journalists,” Schaffer wrote.
Ten key takeaways
1. Engagement is key:
Robust and frequent content begets more content and whets the interest of potential contributors. The sites that have engaged their communities in multiple ways show the most promise.
2. Citizen journalism is a high-churn, high-touch enterprise:
Citizen journalism math is working out this way: Fewer than one in 10 of those you train will stick around to be regular contributors. Even then, they may be “regular” for only a short period of time. Projects that expected to generate content by training a corps of citizen journalists had to develop alternative plans for stories or they struggled with little compelling content.
3. Sweat equity counts for a lot:
Projects built on the grit and passion of a particular founder or corps of founders have created the most robust models for short- and long-term sustainability.
4. Community news sites are not a business yet:
While many all-volunteer sites are showing great promise for sustainability, other site founders want to develop their sites as a sustainable business that can pay staff or contributors.
5. Social media is game changing:
Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools are ushering in a New Age for Community News, creating robust recruiting, marketing, distribution, collaboration, reporting and funding opportunities.
6. Technology can be a blessing and a curse:
Community news sites would not exist without the tech tools for building easy websites and creating digital content. However, efforts to build custom websites led to frequent and lengthy delays and repeated advice to start simply.
7. Legacy news outlets are not yet in the game:
Projects that counted on partnerships with legacy news outlets ultimately found it best to go it alone as newsroom cutbacks left editors with no time to partner. Once launched, though, the New Voices projects found that partners came knocking.
8. The academic calendar is not good enough:
University-led projects built with student journalists need to operate year-round to avoid losing momentum and community trust. They hold great promise but must surmount great hurdles.
9. Youth media should be supplemental:
Projects that sought to train middle or high school students to report on news in their community produced infrequent content and ell prey to high trainer turnover and a need for great supervision. They should be secondary or tertiary, not primary, generators of content.
10. Community radio needs help:
While showing promise as community news outlets, community radio as well as cable access television stations need additional support and stable project leadership to deliver daily newscasts.