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Aug. 18, 2009, 8 a.m.

WikiCity aims to tap hyper-niche markets for news and information

WikiCity is one of the latest to jump on the hyperlocal bandwagon, which includes traditional news sites, blogs, and hybrids. WikiCity started in late 2008, but announced itself formally this summer with local content for just more than 22,000 U.S. communities. It’s a bit like CitySearch with its telephone-book-like listings of restaurants and businesses and similar to BackFence with its aim to be a user-generated hyperlocal site. Yet, when you check out WikiCity’s more robust listings, such as the one for Wahoo, Nebraska, it seems like Wikipedia.

It appears WikiCity is trying to be a bit of all these things — skimming off the best of each and amalgamating those ideas into a new hyperlocal form that readers can update on their own.

WikiCity founder and owner Pat Lazure says the aim initially was to target smaller communities, with 20,000 or fewer residents that may not have a daily newspaper serving them. To get the ball rolling, he and a partner seeded the site with business listings. That way businesses in small communities can use WikiCity as their own Web site if they don’t have one, and readers will have something to see to spur them to jump in and add their own stuff. (Or, at least, that’s the hope.) Eventually, Lazure hopes to spread WikiCity throughout the United States and make money mainly through revenue partnerships with businesses such as travel companies and perhaps some traditional advertising.

What each community’s Wiki page becomes is up to that community in a sense. The page begins with business listings, but it can become a news site of sorts if readers add stories recapping a recent high school sports game or write about the latest controversy in town. This allows each community to customize its WikiCity to reflect the local flavor. “We’re going to let the masses hold the voice, hold the keys,” Lazure explains.”It’s going to be those locals and those communities that will make it.”

The most striking aspect of WikiCity, of course, is its very wikiness, which allows readers to update information, add to what others have written, or correct others’ mistakes. (Or create their own errors, but more on that later.)

I think this idea or something like it has resonance for news organizations. Here’s why:

Untapped niche: Most Americans don’t live in cities. A recent Pew Research Center survey of 2,260 Americans found that just 31 percent say they live in a city, while the rest describe their home community as rural, suburban or a small town (One percent said they didn’t know.) That means small towns are hyper-niches in the “mass of niches” that BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis describes in his book “What Would Google Do?” Catering to just one town wouldn’t yield much but collectively many hyper-niches does add up if you buy into the philosophy Chris Anderson explains in his book “The Long Tail.” So WikiCity has the potential to reach untapped readers because small communities often have no daily newspaper of their own, or they just get an occasional story in the nearest regional or city paper.

Collaboration: To me one of the best potential uses of something like WikiCity would be team up with local news organizations in small communities. The closest newspaper Web site could embed the WikiCity for one or more towns in its coverage area (for a fee) and thereby give its readers the benefits of a potentially vast database and collection of information to help people navigate those communities.

I’ve written before that I believe one of the changes news organizations need to make is to stop thinking of news as their product and start realizing their job is giving people what they need to make sense of the world. Something like WikiCity could be part of that effort and it could augment the hyperlocal pages some news organizations are already playing around with. This collaboration would also get around one of the distinct downsides of WikiCity — that it’s aiming to be hyperlocal in communities where it isn’t located. A news organization partner could provide the local voice. Lazure says such a partnership is possible. WikiCity could strip ads from its sites for particular communities before injecting them into newspaper Web sites, so the newspapers could run their own ads. However, he’d rather news organization tap into his whole network, not just a few communities.

Time-saving: Of course, news organizations could invent their own WikiCity-type site. Some are already in the works. Syracuse.com, the Web site of The Post-Standard where (full disclosure) I used to work, offers some suburban readers restaurant listings and chances to review these local haunts as part of a more extensive hyperlocal page. The Birmingham (Ala.) News Web site allows readers to select whether they want a focus on state or local issues on the Web site, and the site can “remember” the choice.

But building hyperlocal pages and innovations like these, particularly for the smallest newspapers, can be costly, time-consuming and sometimes impossible given technological limitations of staffs. And then you have to update all the hyperlocal listings. That’s why I like the wiki aspect of WikiCity. Yes, some people will mess things up, as some people always do. But if Wikipedia is any example, most people who udpate will do a good job, and readers will benefit from the “wisdom of the crowd” that Anderson uses to explain Wikipedia’s success in “The Long Tail.” Now wiki-fying news content gets, well, sticky in my mind. But it seems a news organization could still use the listing and directory-type aspects of WikiCity in its wiki format embedded on Web site pages.

Will WikiCity succeed? I don’t know. I do predict that someone, somehow will figure how to tap into the hyper-niche market of the smallest towns. It would be nice if newspapers could be part of that in a meaningful way.

POSTED     Aug. 18, 2009, 8 a.m.
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