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Lance Knobel: For hyperlocal news, we local players will have the edge

Editor’s Note: In the increasingly competitive world of journalism, it’s easy to start declaring winners and losers. The reality will likely be somewhere in between; just as television didn’t kill radio, there’ll be room for lots of different kinds of news outlets in the Internet age.

So today, we’re going to feature two pieces by people whose medium of choice some have recently forecast to come up short: print newspapers (facing threats from tablets) and homegrown local news sites (facing threats from national networks).

First, Lance Knobel, cofounder of Bay Area news site Berkeleyside, argues that, despite the challenge from networks like Aol’s huge-and-growing Patch, sites at the grassroots have a stronger chance to succeed.

In the torrent of analysis on AOL’s acquisition of Huffington Post, relatively little attention has been given to the fate of Patch, AOL’s ambitious attempt to build a national network of local news sites. I have a dog in this fight: I’m one of the three founder-editors of Berkeleyside, the leading news site for Berkeley, California. So the growth of Patch — and its supposedly imminent expansion to Berkeley — has been something I’ve watched with keen attention.

The only concrete remarks I’ve seen on the Patch part of the AOL/HuffPo deal have referred to it as providing “local infrastructure” and to the benefits Huffington’s “reader engagement tools” will bring to the sites. I’m not sure I buy into either theory. I can perhaps see some logic in HuffPo having access to tons of very local journalism when, for instance, there’s a national election. What’s the mood in Walnut Creek? But when Arianna Huffington has spoken in the past about a desire to move into local she has clearly meant building city sites, not sites for towns in the 40,000 to 100,000 population where Patch is active.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of local online news sites, most of them run by local entrepreneurs, bootstrapping their way to sustainability (I avoid the term hyperlocal because it’s meaningless to most people). They get virtually no attention from most media observers. When attention is paid to what’s happening in local journalism the focus is on well funded ventures like Bay Citizen (Berkeleyside partners with Bay Citizen) or experiments by The New York Times and others.

I have nothing against these sites (although I’d like some share of the attention), since I believe we’re in a pre-Cambrian age of local online journalism. There is a bewildering variety of lifeforms and the likelihood is many won’t survive. We need all this experiment to find the proper evolutionary path. The truth is the bulk of the experimentation, the stretching of form, the innovative thinking is happening on sites like Berkeleyside, West Seattle Blog, The Rapidian, and many, many others. (Michele McLellan at the Reynolds Journalism Institute has been tracking this thoroughly.)

Those are the places, crucially, where the best journalism is being done as well. I know we cover Berkeley better than anyone else. We’re wholly dedicated to that task (well, wholly dedicated other than the work all of us need to do outside Berkeleyside to earn a living). We break stories, we engage the community, we’re deeply involved in the crucial debates in our city, we convene important live discussions as well. We write about the best of our city as well as the problems (that last link is not for the squeamish). Our commenters are overwhelmingly civil because they know they are dealing with their neighbors. We’re a source for action as well. We know of two businesses that survived largely because Berkeleyside wrote about them.

So isn’t Patch doing the same thing? Not quite, to my mind. There are some individual Patch sites that do a good job (our nearest neighbor, Albany Patch, is one). I have no belief, however, that you can create great or even good local sites out of a production line, no matter how much money you throw at them (Ken Auletta suggested AOL was spending $30 million a quarter on Patch). The constraint for local sites isn’t technical infrastructure or web skills — it’s finding the right people who combine a passion for their town or city with real journalism skills (and I make no distinction between those who come from conventional journalism backgrounds, like the three Berkeleyside founders, and people who have figured it out for themselves by leaping in and doing it).

Perhaps I’m old fashioned in thinking this can only happen organically. It’s not something that emerges from a strategic plan. If it did, we’d be creating Anytown-sides all over the place at the moment. We’re constrained by capital, of course, but the bigger constraint is people. We know that Anytownside wouldn’t be as good as Berkeleyside unless we could find people a lot like me and my co-founders.

Perhaps it’s easy to look at the media landscape and think local journalism belongs in big national networks. After all, in local papers you have behemoths like Gannett and Newhouse. But the papers inside these corporations were started one by one, just as Berkeleyside and others are being created today. Where I grew up there was a local weekly paper that was part of a network of a half dozen other local papers. It’s a fair guess that before that it was the creation of a lone entrepreneur. After I moved someone did a roll-up of these and other Chicago-area local papers, and that in turn was bought by the Chicago Sun-Times at some point. No one had the delusion they could create dozens or hundreds of local newspapers in one go.

I know our bet is that real journalism wins against “content” (see this excellent analysis of AOL/HuffPo to understand the distinction). I’m happy with that in the long run.

There’s also a commercial logic to our approach that I think is very difficult to duplicate at a national or even regional level. Look at the ads on any Patch site. (That’s a trick: There aren’t any on many Patch sites.) We’re doing well with advertisers, although we still have a long way to go. Why is that? Have you ever spoken to a local business owner? Online marketing is not top of their concerns. They are busy running their business, often struggling to survive in a punishing economy. So our job as a fellow local business is to help them understand just what marketing on the web is all about, a patient task of education. We often have to design their ad. We have to work with them one at a time. That’s only going to happen at an intensely local level.

If and when Patch launches in Berkeley I’ll welcome it. I’m in favor of more news providers rather than fewer. I also believe in the benefits of competition. I can crow about how good Berkeleyside is, but we can certainly improve. A competitor will push us. But in the battle between the truly local and the big corporate giants I think we local yokels have all the crucial assets on our side.

                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    April 14, 2014
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  • http://j-lab.org,KCNN.org,J-Learning.org Jan Schaffer

    Lance -

    Your column echoes what I say all the time: Good community news sites are born out the passion and deep-seated community knowledge of their founders. And some of the best founders may not be journalists, but so-called “civic catalysts” who have always been active in the community and know where the skeletons are buried. I think the best Patch sites benefit from having these kind of people as editors and those with less momentum suffer because they don’t.

    And I’d add to your list of meaty sites: NewCastleNOW.org, DavidsonNews.net, QCityMetro.com.

    Cheers,
    Jan Schaffer
    J-Lab: The Institute for Interative Journalism

  • http://www.MelTaylorMedia.com Mel Taylor

    In local news…the winner is usually the one with the best and largest newsroom. Typically it’s the locally home-grown site/newspaper that takes the honor.

    Yet in a world where many new, online competitors are comprised of profit-focused, digital mercenaries that may or may not serve up deep local news…..(think Reach Local, Groupon & Patch)….

    It’s mission critical that all local news sites ramp up their business savvy. Great reporting needs financial support. Much of that support has come from local business.

    Superior local journalism combined with a faulty or in-effective business model, exposes the home grown site to potentially being out-spent, out-marketed and out-maneuvered….by a journalistically-inferior competitor.

  • http://www.davidsonnews.net/ David Boraks

    Mel: You’ve hit the nail on the head. The biggest obstacle to a veteran journalist succeeding in the hyperlocal biz is to see himself/herself as an entrepreneur in addition to as a journalist. That means giving equal time to financial budgets as well as story budgets. It means making deadlines as well as making financial goals.

    That great think-piece you published last week, but so is the Monday morning sales meeting and the bookkeeper’s report on Friday. Revenues > expenses … simple for anyone with a business background. New world for a 30-yr journalist. But we can do it.

    We’ve found that businesses will support a community site and there are ways to be profitable. Lesson 1: the journalist/publisher’s attention can’t be focused only on news. Lesson 2: surround yourself with people who know the stuff you don’t. Lesson 3: get ready to learn fast …

  • http://mainstreetconnect.us Andrew Vazzano

    Lance,

    Patch’s shotgun approach to news is very different from the way we – Main Street Connect – have gone about launching a national network of news sites.

    We launched our ten sites in Fairfield County ten months ago, and have reached out to the communities we cover. We don’t want to swoop in and cover the news. We want to become a part of the fabric of our towns.

    Our Local Advisory Boards – made up of men and women that live, work and service the towns we cover – support us through tips, suggestions, ideas and more. They are the lifeblood of the communities, and we’ve tapped into them to help us grow.

    Local wins. Always. And though MSC aims to be national, our goal is to keep everything as local as possible.

    Andrew Vazzano
    Main Street Connect

  • http://intermediatorgroup.com Henry Scott

    Great post Lance. I don’t think you can do local without being local. That is and will be Patch’s big problem, and the big problem of Topix and others that merely want to skim the surface of local content developed by others. There’s no depth, there’s no demonstrated understanding of the communities they purport to cover