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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

The newsonomics of the Swift Street Courtyard

There’s a huge opportunity for someone to become the essential guide to local places, events, and commerce. But will news organizations be the ones to take advantage?
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Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

You want local? The Swift Street Courtyard is local.

Amid all the many abstractions about local and hyperlocal, Patch and reader/ad match, print migration and monetization, the institution of the Swift Street Courtyard whispered something to me about “local” last week.

The Swift Street Courtyard is a small, commercial development on the west side of Santa Cruz, my new hometown. It’s the brainchild of bakers Kelly and Mark Sanchez, who developed and own the two-acre complex overall and run Kelly’s French Bakery, the courtyard’s hub. It sprung out of a fallen-down light industrial area (packing Brussels sprouts in the old days), opening in 2003. Now it’s a cool destination, a tiny slice of post-industrial paradise, housewares and lighting stores, salons and yoga studios, gift, silk, and knitting shops and a just-opened, direct-from-the-ranch butcher. People regularly use the courtyard, a “playpen” as Kelly Sanchez calls it, as a meeting and chatting spot. It’s on the mental map of Santa Cruzans, drawing 20,000 people or so a month. Across an alley, another developer has matched the Courtyard style, building a burgeoning center of wine tasting, so now the more than half dozen Santa Cruz Mountains wineries, an organic brewpub, and the four-star Cellar Door restaurant attract still more visitors. (There’s even a gin joint, literally a new boutique gin maker, a block or two down.)

Yet, if you look up Swift Street Courtyard on Google, you find little helpful. Of course, there are lots of links: 2.4 million without quotes around the name, a mere 436,000 if you add “Santa Cruz.” We find little helpful, useful — or indicative of why this local institution is an institution. While we get links to sites that mention the place, we don’t get a sense of the place, a feel of the place — or, really, much useful information. What we get — and my sense is this is increasingly true of online-delivered search results — is a kind of Yellow Pages 2.0. It’s not as simple as the old YP: In its mass, and clutter, there is far more information than the old YP, yet there’s little depth or breadth. I don’t need 74 sites offering me the same phone number, address, or “Map It” functions.

In the Swift Street Courtyard example, I think we see both a big, current problem of local and a huge opportunity, for readers, publishers, and marketers. If Gordon Borrell’s merry research band is close to right, there’s a cornucopia of local digital advertising spend developing: $13.5 billion in 2011, rising to $25 billion, when it could be 25 percent of the local ad spend. So let’s look at the newsonomics of the Swift Street Courtyard to see what we can learn and how the next generation of digital media can earn some of those dollars.

Let’s start with what we now find, via Google, in order, because that tells us how far local has to go:

  • Wine Country Getaways gives us a bare-bones paragraph, plus a brief mention of some lunch options. It’s one of those sites with a smattering of directory content for northern California wineries, offering lots of links to marketing partners and, apparently, great search engine optimization. It holds the top two search rankings.
  • Yelp, with a page, listing five of the Courtyard’s businesses.
  • An events page from the local daily, the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Here’s what it looks like:

Rather minimal.

Then, there are real estate sites, foodie sites and local wiki sites, each featuring a paragraph or two of directory-like info. Zvents follows with a map and nothing more. SFGate (the Chronicle’s website) offers the exact same non-information as the Sentinel (didn’t the Justice Department say that the Hearst-owned Chronicle and the MediaNews-owned were supposed to remain competitive?). Google Places pops up, you guessed it, more directory info.

Then, into the second page, we find some individual websites for the courtyard’s shops.

Local media? Good Times, an above-average alt weekly in print, only gives us some detail from its calendar. Its paler competitor, Santa Cruz Weekly, offers no search online, no Swift info. The same is the case for Santa Cruz’s small public radio station site, KUSP.org, and the larger KAZU.org, Central Coast public radio.

Patch shows up nowhere in the top three pages, though its page would rank as second-best to Yelp’s, with five listings of individual stores, and a ton of photos, most of them mediocre and unhelpful. (From how many angles can you shoot asphalt? Does anyone edit Patch photos?) Examiner.com puts Swift Street Courtyard on its Oakland (some 70 miles north) site.

Interestingly, the only video of the place, a self-conscious bit of a visit, can be found on TurnHere (“Short Films, Cool Places”), though I only found it because Mark Sanchez told me about it; it doesn’t turn up easily on Google.

So: Is it any surprise when we hear “local doesn’t work”? As consumers, as readers, what we get for local, largely, is what’s been repurposed from print. Local words, in text. But words and nothing more don’t fit us in 2011. Seeing is believing.

When we say local, we mean our whole local experience. Certainly, the news from City Hall and the schools and the cops report, prep sports, and the like. Community life, though, is far larger.

So, let’s return to Swift Street Courtyard. Imagine a world in which consumers can move their finger around a magic tablet surface, watching, listening, reading reviews and more? That world is here, but consumers and readers are way ahead of media. For local media, or others, the question is who, and first, will take advantage of the tablet/smartphone/visual era? Digital tools — those available cheaply today to anyone — will enable somebody to:

  • Bring video to the Courtyard party. The scene is about people, shopkeepers, shoppers, sippers, yoga enthusiasts, and conversationalists. The best way to describe the place is with video. Create video that tells the story of the place, update it from time to time, as part of a wider Santa Cruz video guide. I’m sure the Sentinel and the weeklies have done some good features about the Courtyard, its shopkeepers, and its openings. Good luck even finding them on their sites. Text features do have their place and their value, but are especially valuable in context, in organization, and fronted by video.
  • Bring tours, mapping and a bit of gaming to the Courtyard party. Pull in a little of the fluidity of Trulia’s mapping and searching, a little of the cinéma réalité of Grand Theft Auto, a little of the 360 views of real estate tours.
  • Bring events to the Courtyard party. Yes, if you meander through online listings of the daily, the weeklies, and Patch, you can find stuff happening there. Why not put it in single place? Events aren’t just unusual events. What kind of soup does Kelly’s French Bakery have today? What is Sones Winery tasting today? What’s new and fresh at the brand-new El Salsichero handcrafted charcuterie (I told you this was Santa Cruz)? That’s news, events — and shopping.
  • Yes, bring shopping to the Courtyard party. I recall Village Soup‘s Richard Anderson telling me a few years ago about his innovation: letting lunch places tell would-be patrons about the daily hot plate special. Visit Village Soup, and you see BizOffers and OrgOffers giving you very specific offers about what’s on tap, today, now. It’s a step beyond Groupon. Shopping here, commerce here, has lots of potential edges. A local medium could put up the whole Courtyard online, charging for its service. (That’s hardly a new idea. I remember Philly.com, under Chris Mills, offering sophisticated commercial video in the late ’90s; great idea, just too early.) In fact, the digital courtyard idea offers lots of selling and buying opportunities around search engine optimization and marketing, sponsorship, customer-list-building, deals of the day, location-aware deals of-the-moment, and lots more.

Sure, I may sign up for GotDailyDeals.com from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, but how cool would it be, if I could specifically select Courtyard deals and avoid offers from oil-change shops I’m not interested in? And how valuable would such segmenting be to merchants?

Take all of what local media are trying to sell and apply it to this micro-community, the Swift Street Courtyard. (Yes, you can also apply it to schools, and parks, and downtowns — some with more direct commercial opportunity than others.) The Courtyard is only a small piece of Santa Cruz, and Santa Cruz is only a tiny corner of the terrestrial and digital worlds. Yet it gives us a sense of how local could work, work differently and work profitably for merchants and for consumers. Start small, make it work and expand from there. Suddenly, local commerce — and understanding that $13.5 billion number — can look different.

What’s your Swift Street Courtyard?

So who will step up? Dailies and weeklies have such a tough time escaping their legacy of text, and seeing the world differently, though I do see some rumblings I’ll write about soon. Public radio stations understand audio, but the small ones have few staff. Patch has the benefit of several feet on the street, but they seem to be running as fast as they can. City guide sites have always stopped short, delivering templated information that now feels so ’90s. Maybe the merchants themselves, aided by smart marketers who can use today’s tools, will do it themselves, bypassing media “help”; our handcrafted charcuterie already has one impressive little site (sans video) for an a butcher shop. Maybe it’s nonprofits; the city of Santa Cruz has already engaged a WayFinding group to “to evaluate and improve upon the experience of navigating around Santa Cruz,” as a half dozen other cities are also doing.

It’s an opening, and a huge one. We may see some media grab on to the possibility, testing and developing models, which could spread through chains or franchises or simply best practice. Or we may see media further decrying the difficulty of defining and selling “local,” upping their sales attempts as their products continue to disappoint and fail to engage readers.

I’d like to believe in the former, but history has so far proven out the latter. Maybe 2012, with 50 million iPads in the U.S. — by my estimate, that means as many as 40,000 residents of Santa Cruz Country — will prove differently.

                                   
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Ann Marie Lipinski    
The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard wants to hear your idea for making journalism better. Come spend a few weeks working on it in Cambridge.
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  • http://twitter.com/magazineconnect Hyper Local Media

    The issue here is scale and cost to fulfill – as you say, Patch.com is already running as fast as they can to keep up. We work with local publishers, though generally local magazines, and we agree with your assessment about their heritage – in truth, they too run lean ships just different ships. We believe the answer will come from a network of local media companies with a national media brand as the rallying point… of course we’re biased as a result of our locable.com initiative.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jcoffis Jim Coffis

    Scale and cost are certainly current barriers but why does local have to scale?  My guess is the best local sites (those that are useful to locals as well as visitors to an area) will be “home grown” not templated. 

  • http://www.santacruzsentinel.com Santa Cruz Sentinel

    The Swift Street Courtyard is great!

    We’ll work on our listing, and calendar, and tablet app, and maps, and 3D panoramic live streaming video (from our aerial drones), with real-time location-based targeted advertising.

    We honestly talk about a lot of these things.

    But all of the above may come at the expense of covering breaking news (happening now: http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/localnews/ci_18456134). And possibly at the expense of other neighborhoods like the Swift Street courtyard around the county. Your points are well taken, though, and our user-generated calendar listing is a little embarrassing.

    For this organization, we don’t have the resources to be quite so hyperlocal, and quite so good at hyperlocal. We need to do better at partnering with people in the community to help build that potential.

    We are working building real-time advertising modules, being more location-based, building those community partnerships to help us get to this level of hyper local detail in a cost-effective way. We’re just starting to post restaurant reviews and deals on Foursquare and Yelp.

    I love the idea of aggregating local businesses, helping them sell their products and deals. Central to the long-term future of organizations like ours is finding ways of earning our share of that $13.5 billion.

    Ken, let’s have lunch there, one of these days at Swift Street.

    Tom Moore, Online Editor, Santa Cruz Sentinel

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  • http://www.villagesoup.com Richard Anderson

    Thanks for remembering us Ken.

    VillageSoup has an approach proven to generate participation, revenue and
    efficiencies no other news site achieves.

    Our Digital Main Street™
    platform serving two 40,000 population markets in Midcoast Maine generates more
    than 2.5 million page views, 152,000 page views per month and $500,000 annual
    revenue. And we produce two paid circulation weekly newspapers that are
    profitable.

    Our platform is available on the Amazon Cloud and a growing
    number of news organizations around the country are joining the VillageSoup
    Common.

    While we were way ahead of the market, we have been evolving since our 1997 beginning. We tried being online only for six
    years, introduced two weekly newspapers in 2003, awarded an $885,000  Knight
    Foundation grant in 2009,  then purchased  our 150 year old legacy competitor in
    2008.

    Our current focus in on the new print/display product that must emerge to sustain professional journalism.