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

Five things The New York Times learned from its three-year hyperlocal experiment

The New York Times, backing away from The Local, says it doesn’t make sense to pay its staff to be in the hyperlocal business.

With yesterday’s news that The New York Times is ending its affiliation with The Local — a pair of hyperlocal blogs that the newspaper launched three years ago — an experiment came to a close. And from the outset, the Times made it clear that it thought of its dive into neighborhood coverage as just that — an experiment, not an investment likely to generate financial returns. As the Times’ Jim Schachter told us in 2009, The Local would be, within the context of the Times, “barely enough to create a ripple in a pond and not enough to be profitable.”

But nonetheless, even with expectations set low, when the Times moves, people notice — and 2009 was a boom time for interest in hyperlocal, Times or no Times. Some running home-grown hyperlocal sites — the kind more recently assembled under the Authentically Local banner — questioned whether a big institution like The New York Times would have the right mix to pull off neighborhood coverage. (Check out the comments on that 2009 post to see the back-and-forth between Schachter and West Seattle Blog’s Tracy Record.)

The Local project started with a pair of community-focused sites covering neighborhoods in Brooklyn and New Jersey. By June 2010, the Jersey version of The Local was shuttered. Months later, the Times and NYU jointly launched an East Village iteration.

The Local was billed as an open-ended project with some specific ideas in mind. Blogs would be helmed by a couple of professional New York Times reporters, but story ideas and contributions would come from the community. If all went well, it might create a platform the Times could license to other communities.

“We, at least, have not figured out how to extract the professional journalist, or minimize it close to anything nearing zero”

As it turned out, the Times ended up handing off editorial control to local journalism schools — CUNY along with NYU — while keeping The Local branded as a collaboration with The New York Times. The schools have now formed committees to figure out what to do now that the newspaper is exiting, and Schachter — whose own Times goodbye party is tomorrow — told me that the newspaper “is giving them time to figure it out.”

Meanwhile, the newspaper is sussing out what it learned from the experiment. “What we have been trying to figure out at the Times — and I think what lots of people in this space have been trying to fiure out — is how do you prompt communities, and can you prompt communities into the act of covering themselves in a meaningful way?”

Schachter says there’s plenty to consider, and that “the truth is, we are not as good as we should be about learning from these initiatives.” Here’s a start, with five takeaways on what he believes The Local taught The New York Times.

1. It just doesn’t make sense for big media companies to pay their staffs to go hyperlocal.

The New York Times is a national and global news organization. Schachter says while covering neighborhoods has been “useful to become familiar with commercial issues related to hyperlocal,” it hasn’t been altogether practical.

“Honestly, if hyperlocal is not core to a media organization’s business, then a media organization cannot possibly be fully engaged in it,” he said. “Large media organizations cannot afford to cover large geographic areas in a hyperlocal way using exclusively paid staff.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t hyperlocal projects that can benefit both big newspapers and community reporters — Schachter cites offering basic journalism training courses. “Doing online courses on how to develop a hyperlocal blog and how to do community journalism,” Schachter said, “I think that that’s something that news organiaztions ought to learn from and think about: What skills do they have that, without undermining their own efforts, they can share and can make money from…inviting people into newsrooms and showing them how to do journalism.”

2. Hard-hitting hyperlocal coverage benefits from some professional journalism.

Schachter believes that “if you want to get really good content that gets hard questions answered, you need a fair amount of professional journalism.” Whether that’s a New York Times reporter or a NYU journalism professor, you need someone who knows his way around a courtroom or a city council meeting or a FOIA request. Not every citizen has those skills. “We, at least, have not figured out how to extract the professional journalist or minimize it close to anything nearing zero,” he said.

3. Create a platform that makes it easy for people to participate in diverse ways.

Not everyone can write an account of the day’s news that The New York Times would publish. But that doesn’t mean that only professional journalists can produce meaningful work. From Schachter:

“If you can lower the barriers to participation, you’ll be more successful. If people think the only way to contribute is to write a New York Times quality article, you’ll only get so much engagement…But if sending in a photograph, answering a question, tweeting, taking notes for posting at a community board meeting — if all those are ways that people can participate, then you’ve broadened participation.”

Schachter also says the technology must facilitate participation. One way that The Local East Village tried to do that was through its Virtual Assignment Desk, a WordPress plugin that helps organize story pitches in a way that’s viewable by the public. The blog’s Open Assignment page details story ideas that haven’t been executed, and enables people to support or volunteer for coverage.

4. Understand the power of email.

Both of The Local sites have daily email newsletters, which is nothing usual among major news organizations, but is also a distribution technique that Schachter says smaller outfits shouldn’t overlook: “Media organizations overlook the power of this very simple tool. If people will opt into letting it into their mailbox, you are so far down the path of making them loyal audience members. The things you can lead them to do once they’ve made that choice are just immense.”

5. Don’t abandon experiments in “innovation land.”

The Local may have been billed an experiment from its inception — but more integration with the Times’ regular city reporters would have helped it thrive, Schachter said.

“I would have been much more aggressive, acting faster about pulling the experiment directly into the orbit of the Metro Desk,” he said. “Once you get an experiment going, by whatever means, get the people who are doing similar things in a nonexperimental, day-to-day way. Getting them to take ownership of it and love it and make it theirs is just critical.”

Schachter says then-metro editor Joe Sexton was “incredibly generous with resources and enthusiasm and support,” but the Times failed to truly embed The Local sites in the newsroom.

“They would have been a better teaching tool if they were less peripheral,” Schachter said. “Just sort of editorial ownership of it being right on the Metro Desk, as opposed to it being something that was considered independent, autonomous, budgetarily distinct…It stayed in innovation land, as opposed to ‘we’ve incubated it.’”

Schachter says the Times has already applied this lesson to its India Ink blog, which launched last September and “has ownership” by the foreign desk. (We wrote about India Ink a few weeks ago.)

That being said, The New York Times has incorporated some of what came from The Local into its basic metro coverage. Schachter says The Local has helped refine ideas on effective crowdsourcing, and features that are now part of the City Room. Urban Forager, for example, had its beginnings in The Local.

So what does any of this tell us about the future of hyperlocal news, and the extent to which industry attitudes have shifted in the past three years? Around the time The Local was starting up, there was a lot of buzz about Maine’s Village Soup as a hyperlocal model; most of its operations shut down in March. And plowing some of The Local’s same New Jersey turf at launch was Patch, whose financial life under AOL has been challenging. Many Authentically Local-style sites continue to do well, but their models haven’t scaled at the rate some would have hoped a few years ago.

“The industry was cratering at the time [in 2009], and a lot of news organzations were trying to figure out how do we save ourselves,” Schachter said. “They saw what was going on all around them — in the sense this was back to their roots — enough to say, ‘Can we figure out how to go back to providing coverage of local news?’ Most of the news organizations that engaged with this had so devastated their reporting ranks that, in my view, they were left to be shadowboxing with the idea because they couldn’t engage with it. Meantime, AOL, of all organizations, poured heart and soul into it. God bless them.”

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  • Jim Schachter

    As I told Adrienne when we spoke, the person who made the Locals happen – and who continues to – is Mary Ann Giordano. Mary Ann invented the sites, along with Metro reporters Andy Newman and Tina Kelley. No one understands the equation of professional journalism + community contributors + j-school faculty and students the way she does. So much so that one of the commercial efforts that emerged from the Locals was a set of online courses in community journalism taught by Mary Ann.
    Mary Ann’s experience developing the Locals led to her casting as the founding editor of SchoolBook,, the groundbreaking collaboration between The Times and WNYC public radio that combines reporting, data and conversation to provide the single best online destination for anyone interested in schools in New York.She’s an amazing journalist and has been a great partner in these pioneering projects. 

  • digidave

    Kudos @Jim Schater for taking the time to break down some of the lessons learned.

    Kick butt at WNYC.

  • tishgrier

    Hyperlocal has always been tricky–partly because there is no way to predict how people will respond to the efforts of those organizing the project.  In 2009, a number of other factors contributed to a cave-in of hyperlocal: the popularity of both Facebook and Twitter are two of those factors.   In the small New England town I live in (roughly 16,000 people) a lot of communication is through Facebook or the local paper.  During the Halloween storm in 2011, a large portion of important community information was circulated through Facebook.  Because we are a small town, there are individuals who are known to the community and trusted.  From one known and trusted individual, news can spread pretty quickly…..

    But just because it works this way in my town doesn’t mean it will work the same way in another town of the same size and density.  There are so many factors that contribute to what makes one type of news distribution channel successful in one town vs. another that it’s almost serendipitous when it does work.

    So,  newspapers can try, and they can learn, but it’s always up to the people who are taking in and sharing the news as to what platforms, innovations, sources, etc. will end up creating hyperlocal news distribution channels (a better word than sites–as sometimes they are not stand-alone sites.)

  • West Seattle Blog

    Who had been “hoping” our “models” will “scale,” and at what “rate”? Jeez. Guess it’s not enough to be averaging 1 million pageviews a month and 125,000 uniques now, continuing to grow revenue, winning awards, having significant-sized communities on Facebook (7,400 on our page after building a previous “profile” account to the 5,000 max) and Twitter (14,000) too (also jumped on Pinterest a while back) … And all still without grants, without investors, without rich relatives, without savings accounts, lottery prizes, day jobs … heck, without even having changed our design in  almost seven years .. without national advertising or ugly ad formats like takeovers and wrappers … without gimmicks, without contests … Bummer the megacompanies didn’t believe those of us who said “really, stick to what you do best, and leave this to us little guys” three years ago. As for the article content here – #4 is funny because what I would tell you the power of e-mail is, is using it to RECEIVE, not to “GIVE.” Even with social media, comments, etc., e-mail remains the meatiest means of communicating with community members off the site, one on one. And having a phone line we answer 24/7.

  • Joshua Benton

    Me me me! [waving hand] I’m hoping your model scales! 

    “Hoping your model scale” doesn’t mean “hoping WSB gets bigger and bigger,” although I certainly hope that. “Hoping your model scales” means hoping that there are many, many, MANY more WSBs. In every neighborhood and town in the country!

    Here’s the thing: In the 19th/20th centuries, the local newspaper business really *scaled* — every town had at least one. It was a model that performed well in Seattle and in my hometown of Rayne, Louisiana. So as a *model*, it didn’t just work once — it worked thousands and thousands of time, replicable from sea to shining sea.

    And, to be frank, you didn’t need to be a business genius or a brilliant publisher to pull it off. Most newspaper owners weren’t either. But because the model was so effective and scaled so well, you ended up having newspapers everywhere, and that did some good.

    Now we’ve got the opposite problem. The newspaper business is a pretty awful business to be in these days, and it’s going to get worse. And to be frank, it doesn’t matter much if you’re a business genius or a brilliant publisher — you’re still feeling the pain. (The real newspaper business geniuses got out of the newspaper business 15 years ago or diversified to the point where it’s a small fraction of their overall business.)

    So for those of us who’d like to see the best things about newspapers carried on beyond the death spiral of newspaper companies, we *love* sites like WSB and Berkeleyside and Baristanet and the like. But why isn’t there a WSB in every town in America? There are 19,000 municipalities in the United States and who knows how many neighborhoods — why are there only about 50 sites at Authentically Local? Even if AL lists only 10% of the good homegrown hyperlocal sites in the country, that’s still only a tiny fraction of the country covered.

    As it happens, the most successful hyperlocal sites tend (just *tend*, not all) to be in college towns, liberal communities, upper-middle-class neighborhoods, and other kinds places with high social capital. As a resident of Cambridge, Mass., I *love* those kinds of places! But they’re a relatively small portion of the country. And the most successful hyperlocal sites tend to be led (like WSB, like Berkeleyside, like Baristanet) by really smart and talented journalists/business people. But again, the supply to extraordinary leaders is always limited and will always tilt toward the kinds of cities/communities where they want to live.

    So when I say I want your model to scale, I’m not saying I want some MegaLocalCorp to start 19,000 sites across America and make a gazillion bucks running local sites in a corporate, cookie-cutter way. And it’s certainly not expressing any doubt about WSB and whether it can get to a million pageviews a month.

    I’m saying I want there to be more good local sites — a LOT more. WSB is six years old and is a huge success story — but personally, I’m tired of having to talk about how awesome it is when people ask about successful hyperlocal sites! I want to be able to say “Yes, WSB is great, but here’s a list of 3,000 *other* awesome sites that have followed WSB’s lead!” That list exists, but it’s a lot shorter than 3,000.

    Let me close with a metaphor from my days as an education reporter in Texas. There were some very fine schools and school districts in Texas. And usually they were led by really awesome teachers and principals and superintendents. That’s great, and if you’re lucky enough to live in one of their districts — which tended to be high social-capital areas — or get your kid into one of their classrooms, life was good!

    But there are only so many amazing principals to go around, only so many astounding superintendents, only so many transformative teachers. And certain kinds of places are always going to have a better chance at attracting them. The question for school reformers is how can you improve the *system* so that even an average teacher in an average school in an average district can still produce a good education for kids? I feel similarly about great hyperlocal sites — I haven’t seen enough evidence yet that it can be readily replicated on a large scale.

  • Anna Tarkov

    Surely you know that Block by Block is working on this problem? Have you ever been to one of the conferences? Anyway, here’s the site:

  • Anna Tarkov

    For news like that, I can see how Facebook would be a hub. But I’m guessing no one is doing reporting of the local city council or school district or development plans on Facebook. But of course if your local paper is doing a great job of it, maybe you’re covered.

  • tishgrier

     Actually, our local paper does indeed do an adequate job of announcing and reporting city council and other more “technical” stuff.  The Facebook stuff is for the things that go on while the reporters are covering those meetings.  However, we also have a local blogger who gets the notes from these meetings and posts them on his own site, unfiltered.  So, if a reader really wants to see the bare bones notes, they can see those as well.  It’s surprising how nicely local reporting has evolved here.  That’s not, however, without its own hiccups, not to mention that we don’t know what the paper thinks of the Facebook stuff. 

    Another advantage to us re using Facebook–the guy who does most of the posts is heavily involved with the Chamber of Commerce.  By posting small tid-bits on Facebook, he does not need to keep a blog or “grow” it in any way.  There’s no siphnoning off of revenue from the paper.  Same with the guy who posts the notes.  That info is provided free of charge, with no ads or no need to make it “scale” or “sustainable.”  As I said, though, this works for our town.  Others mileage may vary.

  • Damian Radcliffe

    Thanks for this – of interest to people outside the US too. For example in the UK we’ve seen a number of traditional media companies experiment in this space, with varying degrees of success. I talk about these – and the NYT – in a 15,000 word report I wrote earlier this year for the UK innovation agency, NESTA: 

    The report includes ingredients for success, as well as a discussion of opportunities and challenges. I believe much of this is as relevant to the sector in the US as it is in the UK (although we look at Western Seattle’s traffic with envy!).