Color me skeptical — though not entirely dismissive — of a media-industry concept that, thus far, has been long on promises and short on delivery.
As one (unprofitable) hyperlocal Web site manager describes in the current issue of Fast Company magazine, although “hyperlocal” has been called a trend to watch every year since at least 2004, here we are in 2009, and everybody is still groping for a business model to make it successful.
Different people define the term in different ways, and this is a point we shouldn’t gloss over. In my opinion, what many media companies, particularly newspapers, tout as “hyperlocal” really is nothing of the sort; it’s merely customary newspaper coverage, re-tooled by hacking down the coverage area, stripping away all or most of the content that doesn’t deal with that area and replacing it with a few more “chicken dinner” community news items and grip-and-grin check presentation photos.
That’s not to denigrate these publications. Indeed, this might be the notion of “hyperlocal” around which a workable business model coalesces. It’s just that I think these enterprises are better referred to as “hybrid-local.” Also, they are not very likely to produce the kind of in-depth, investigative journalism pieces so many critics and readers say is missing from newspapers in this era of staff cutbacks.
Hyperlocal efforts that I will refer to here implies a Web-based, street-level news-gathering focus, one most likely (but not necessarily) predicated upon open sourcing, or even crowdsourcing of information.
Some decidedly “un-hyperlocal” companies, such as the New York Times, have launched hyperlocal Web sites. These are, of course, for-profit ventures, and there are two theories as to how they will make money for companies used to making it the old-fashioned way. They could employ the Google model, making millions of dollars, one nickel at a time with small, targeted advertising sales. Or, they could employ the Amway model, developing a template that is sold as a branded blogging site or to franchisees who will do the real “hyperlocal” journalism.
There are impediments to success with either of these business models — the Google model necessitates a network of hyperlocal ventures, the Amway model is akin to a pyramid scheme that leaves the individual hyperlocals to figure out their own business models. Nonetheless, true hyperlocal news delivery could entail significant innovations:
• There is the potential for greater competition and the improved service delivery that usually comes with it. Right now, for example, anyone who wants to start a newspaper to compete with The Beaufort Gazette or The Island Packet faces an awfully stiff start-up cost. Setting up a Web site is inherently less expensive. (Of course, this is true of any information-distribution system, even if it is not hyperlocal.)
• Hyperlocal reporting could be the catalyst for the cataloguing and integration of all sorts of information — for example, health code scores for local restaurants or nuanced street maps that show every stop sign and pothole — that is not readily available right now. This would be true value-added information.
• Hyperlocals present great potential for sophisticated delivery of advertising and marketing information, particularly if they are part of a Google model or if they band together to create their own business alliances.
But there are a lot of obstacles to and problems with hyperlocal coverage and attempts to build a sustainable business model for it:
• Hyperlocal news delivery is predicated, in part, on the notion that there are so many potential sources of regional, national and international news that a local news service should ignore it to carve a local niche. But if the object is to reach a scale at which there is no competition, the aforementioned benefits of competition between hyperlocals evaporate.
• In the same vein, just because a newspaper reader (or, more accurately in this case, a newspaper Web site reader) can find information elsewhere doesn’t mean the newspaper should make them do so. There is utility in one-stop shopping, and it is just as likely that media companies will profit from expanding their scope with refined syndicating and aggregating tools as they will by narrowing their scope with hyperlocal focus.
• Nothing makes databasing the exclusive dominion of hyperlocal sites. In fact, some databases could be too narrow in focus to be of any utility.
• Hyperlocal publication is not necessarily the most efficient means of disseminating a message. For example, mom will get the kids out of the yard and to the dinner table more quickly by calling for them out the back door than by posting a message to them on a Web site. She also diminishes the risk of uninvited guests.
• Independent (read: isolated) hyperlocals will have a difficult time leveraging their information into advertising dollars. Charging for access to content might make more sense, but by definition, hyperlocal markets are so small as to make it unlikely to build a sustainable, for-profit model by charging users.
• Hyperlocals that do manage to leverage advertising or reader dollars likely will service affluent areas. But without subsidy from these enterprises (the kind of subsidies that take place, for example, at newspapers large enough to benefit from scale), hyperlocal coverage of economically disadvantaged areas, both urban and rural, is likely to disappear — not only because lack of affluence makes these markets less attractive to potential advertisers, but because for a host of reasons, the crowdsourcing and participation necessary to pull off hyperlocal is less likely to occur there.
• Lack of profitability doesn’t necessarily mean hyperlocals won’t emerge or be sustained; it does mean their operation will almost necessarily depend upon a philanthropic ethos and contributions of labor from non-professional journalists. The result of that is diminished quality and slower and more sporadic news delivery. (Under those circumstances, is hyperlocal really better than its alternatives?)
• For all the gauzy waxing about how hyperlocal can connect people to their immediate communities, it also can disconnect them from their larger communities.
Just some thoughts.
I’d like to hear yours regarding hyperlocal coverage.