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Mark Armstrong: The death of EveryBlock and why I suddenly care about local

“This is all to say: I think the app or company that ‘solves’ local will probably be a parenting app. Not necessarily a ‘local’ app.”
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I was saddened today to learn that NBC News is shutting down Everyblock, the Knight-funded local project created by Adrian Holovaty, Wilson Miner, Dan O’Neil and Paul Smith. It was an exciting attempt to help organize information and data for cities and neighborhoods — and it was inspiring to watch them attempt something both local and scalable, in a way that many people (aside from maybe Patch) have abandoned.

I’ve lived in some amazing neighborhoods over the past five years, but I can’t say I ever knew them like a local should. We’ve had kids and moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan and now to Oakland.

Now, after seven months on the West Coast, it occurs to me that I know my neighborhood more deeply than I ever did in New York.

It’s not because New York is crowded and anonymous. It’s because preschool has started.

There is suddenly a geographic social scene in which we are automatically included. And it made me realize that when we talk about local, many of us are really talking about kids.

Our social media lives are global, but in our pre-kid lives, the geographic social scene revolved around bars and restaurants and concerts and sporting events. But we were never tied to our neighborhoods. We could go out in Cobble Hill, but we could just as easily go out in the West Village. Our friends were dispersed everywhere around the city. It was relatively easy for everyone to travel to each other.

School changes the boundaries dramatically. Where you decide to live can be decided by the reputation of the school district. And suddenly, you must care about what’s in your immediate vicinity.

For many, the best scenario is to live within blocks of the schools that your children will attend. Being close to school makes everything easier—for friendships, playdates, sporting events, fundraisers, carpooling, and when they’re old enough, walking to school. My parents were newcomers to Fresno when I was born, and they told me what every parent tells me: We met all of our friends through our kids’ schools.1

In the 1980s, my dad also met people through a local club called the Junior Chamber of Commerce, or Jaycees. For him, there were business reasons for getting to know people in his community. He was an insurance agent, so his network of potential clients came from local businesses and the relationships he developed in his neighborhood.

Think of your friends. Are many of them still working for a truly “local” or locally dependent business? Or do they commute by car or train from their suburb to a larger city? Or do they simply work on the Internet?

The truly local business is an endangered species, which means there are fewer advertisers for small local newspapers, and fewer people who are interested in their cities for “business” reasons. I’m not necessarily worried about how things are changing so rapidly, but it could help explain why none of my friends are members of the Jaycees, or Rotary Club, or Kiwanis. Local clubs are aging, and there are fewer young people coming in to replace them. Their social lives are elsewhere. They are connecting globally for global work.

This is all to say: I think the app or company that “solves” local will probably be a parenting app. Not necessarily a “local” app.

I’m certainly not suggesting that only parents care about their communities—that’s not the case at all, and every city will have a diverse makeup of people who make their community special.

But what I am suggesting is that parenting is something that can force a passive resident (like myself) to suddenly pay closer attention to what’s going on around me. It’s what made me realize there is a lot of local information missing from my media diet. And I want a remedy.

When we moved to Oakland, we asked people: How do we find out what’s going on? They suggested blogs like Susan Mernit’s Oakland Local, but they also recommended a number of different Yahoo Groups and Google Groups, mostly for parents. These private forums (and parents want them private) are still the backbone of local conversation across the United States, and no one has introduced a better approach yet.

I’m seeing more possibilities everywhere I look: Jeff Atwood’s Discourse.org, announced this week, seems perfect for local. So could something like GroupMe or Couple or Avocado.

It’s nice to see that Patch is still here, but it’s also slightly depressing to think they’re the only ones trying. If you’re working on something local, I’d love to hear about it.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, we all discover a great new parenting app that sneaks up on us and then reveals that it’s really for everyone in the neighborhood.

Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads and editorial director of Pocket. This piece originally ran on his Tumblr.

Notes
  1. It’s not quite true that I never cared about “local.” I cared enough in 2002 that I started a blog about Fresno (RIP Fresyes). But I was living in New York at the time and it was mostly about Kevin Federline. So it doesn’t quite count.
                                   
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Ken Doctor    Aug. 13, 2014
If newspapers are going to have to survive on their own, the first numbers aren’t encouraging. In southern California, we could see big movement fast.
  • http://twitter.com/westseattleblog West Seattle Blog

    The only true way to scale neighborhood/local IS the one-off like Oakland Local, like Claycord in the East Bay, like Baristanet in New Jersey, like The Batavian in New York state, like Paulding.com in Georgia, like a variety of counterparts we have here in Seattle, like us. “Local” cannot truly be solved for a local area by a national site or app, by a template or framework. That said, EveryBlock’s closure is not really a failure – it’s a decision NBC abruptly and inconsiderately made. I hope it will lead the neighborhoods that used it to start their own sites. It’s the only way to do it right. – Tracy

  • http://ericsuesz.com supereric

    Great points, especially the part about being a passive local resident vs. an active one. I’m a passive one for the most part, and — like you — my child gets me participating in the real-life community whether I want to or not.

  • Alamedan

    I have only in recent years made more of an effort to be part of and involved with my local community. It has its good sides and bad, but it’s a small town next to the big city (Alameda) and I am happy to be here. The bigger issue is how to get people engaged and connected at a local level. Sites are one thing, but in person, face to face and time commitment involvement is another.

  • http://twitter.com/GabiAWright Gabrielle A. Wright

    So where does hyperlocal go next?

  • http://twitter.com/bernardlunn Bernard Lunn

    Totally agree, Authentically Local is the way to go. Will be interesting to see what AOL says about Patch in Q4 earnings release later today.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=609003340 Mark Swanson

    The app has existed for a long time — printed paid circ community newspapers! They have been local for decades, long before it was trendy and hipster and cool. And oh, a lot of them still make enough money to pay their bills, unlike their online cousins. Ever wonder why so many of us have been around for so long?

  • http://gumption.typepad.com Joe McCarthy

    I agree that parenting has the motivational potential to engage adults more fully in their local communities.

    However, parenting is also often accompanied by a heightened sense of protectiveness, and the privacy concerns that often arise in the context of location based services – especially any that may involve children (directly or indirectly) – may well nullify any potential gains in incentives for this target group of users.

  • http://berkeleyside.com Tracey Taylor

    I agree with you that a local news nexus is inherent in a community centered on a local preschool, elementary or even middle and high school (although it dissipates as the children grow older). But that’s just a slice of local life – a patchy networking resource that misses many important community issues. A site like Berkeleyside (which I co-founded three years ago) in the city next to where you live, really does — might I modestly suggest — provide a local news and happenings hub for an audience that spans all demographics. Same is true of the other independent local sites mentioned by previous commenters. Everyone keeps asking whether these sites are scaleable. But the owners of these sites don’t necessarily see scaleability as a goal. Sustainability, yes. For many of us, it’s about focusing on what we do very well and building revenues based around one community, not dozens. (Having said all that, I’m not discounting that Oaklandside may one day happen and we’d hope you’d be one of our first, eager readers!)

  • http://www.facebook.com/DylanRSmith Dylan Smith

    Certainly the judicious application of technology can assist journalists at all levels, and the code behind EveryBlock was an important experiment in gathering data at the local level.

    NBC’s pulling the plug on EveryBlock points to what Local Independent Online News Publishers see as a central tenet: local news should be reported by local journalists working for local news organizations.

    National corporations aren’t invested in communities; their mission is to pull profits from them in the most efficient manner possible. The publishers of locally owned businesses are those who are close enough to their cities and towns to understand the sort of news they must provide, and who are positioned to focus on that while building healthy businesses for the long term.

    I believe the truth of the aphorism “local doesn’t scale” is as readily apparent in the case of EveryBlock as it is with AOL’s Patch. No matter how well they might work in one location, the cookie-cutter, top-down templated play can’t be widely replicated in every market. Central planning works even less well for the news industry than it did for Soviet agriculture.

  • http://twitter.com/mattoperry Matt Perry

    I think the focus on parenting maybe a bit too narrow. Plenty of people are not parents but are still very active in the local community. I’m thinking, for example, of retirees — a group of people who are increasingly wired, locally focused and who have far more time to think about their neighborhoods than busy parents.

    As other commenters have suggested, the problem with hyperlocal platforms is that it’s difficult for them to acquire any sense of authenticity. Patch is local in the way that McDonalds is. Sure — there’s one in most neighborhoods, and it might be run by a local person, but does that make your McDonald’s a local business?

    Something like Berkeleyside or the Next Door Media group of sites in Seattle (where I live) is genuinely local. I know who the founders and operators are, and where they live.

    I hope that future “hyperlocal” startups focus less on solving a perceived global problem from the top down, and more on empowering more people to provide local community news and content themselves, and achieve local sustainability.

  • http://twitter.com/mattoperry Matt Perry

    Just noticed that West Seattle Blog posted below — props to them too!

  • http://twitter.com/tomstites Tom Stites

    For a distinctive effort to do something local, check out the Banyan Project, which is pioneering a new business model built on the sturdy base of cooperative ownership — community-level news and information sources owned by their readers the way shoppers own food co-ops and depositors own credit unions. See BanyanProject.com.

    And see Dan Kennedy’s NiemanLab piece on Banyan’s pilot effort in Haverhill, Mass.: http://www.niemanlab.org/2012/07/banyan-project-planning-its-first-community-owned-news-co-op/

    Banyan-model co-ops are designed to be easily replicable from community to community, the way food co-ops and credit unions replicated from coast to coast.

    The co-ops will be businesses owned by hundreds if not thousands of community members. They will be led professionally yet governed democratically through one-member/one-vote election of directors, as are co-ops of all kinds. Their revenue structure is designed to make them thrive even as newspapers wither. And their journalism will be free for all to read so they can serve the broad public of the less-than-affluent everyday citizens, not just the upscale people newspapers tend to cultivate.

  • helixten

    The was it was handled extremely poorly.!!! Going to loclville.com

  • http://twitter.com/davidbcrowley David Crowley

    Appreciate your comments, Dylan. Agree that sustainable local news needs to come from local folks.

  • http://twitter.com/davidbcrowley David Crowley

    I too see inherent problems with trying to “scale local” in a cookie cutter fashion. But I do believe we can try to put both tools & skills in the hands of local folks to bring local news and opportunities to life. We try to do this at our nonprofit, http://socialcapitalinc.org. We’re not strictly news, we are trying to share local info to encourage engagement. For instance, this recent post describes how sharing info about someone who’d run out of heat prompted a quick response from our community. http://socialcapitalinc.org/node/1382

    Examples of our local community web portals can be found at http://mydorchester.org and http:.//sciwoburn.org.

  • http://twitter.com/midlifemixtape Nancy Davis Kho

    Hate to be Debbie Downer on this but as an Oakland resident for the past 15 years there’s been a discernible uptick in communication for my hills neighborhood in the past 18 months, around crime. Our simple Yahoo!Group neighborhood watch, and a nascent NextDoor community, have been – to use an Oakland term – hella effective at getting neighbors talking and looking out for one another. It will be nice when the current crime wave is under control and those channels could be used more frequently for posting about local businesses and other relevant news.

  • Jeannie Ericson

    My local interest also started with kids, but it has really blossomed far beyond what only matters for the kids. You start to realize all the local variables contribute to your way of life – it’s all connected – schools, crime, business, parks, government, etc. I live in Atlanta and subscribe to three Patch feeds that help me patch together very granular local content – and it works well for me. We are also seeing a tool called neighborhoodname.nextdoor.com (where you insert your neighborhood name) grow. It’s restricted to your physical address being part of a defined neighborhood boundary and it’s run by the neighborhood – the tool provider does not post. It’s used for local recs, babysitter recs, crime warnings, property dispute updates, lost dog notes, etc. It’s growing slowly, but I prefer it much more than the old school Yahoo Group. I agree with the suggestion that local may come from a national provider but more in the sense of providing an infrastructure that is populated locally. Thanks for the post!

  • AlmostJoined

    SPOT-ON. And, yes, I meant all caps. Mark Armstrong gets it.

  • http://twitter.com/SariNickelsburg Sari Nickelsburg

    Hi Mark, I’m catching your article belatedly. However, I’m working on a local product in the parenting space with a very specific focus on family friendly events. If you want more information, you can contact me at info@mama411.com. I’ll give you personal contact information.

  • Oakland In Motion

    Oakland In Motion, http://www.oakland-in-motion.com is a mobile app and website that features Events and Attractions and Restaurants. But’s that is not it’s only asset. Since the owners and operators are right here in the East Bay, they make sure that they present positive information about Oakland. Also they present low cost marketing opportunities for small businesses in Oakland. The site is interactive so the community can upload photos. They also plan to include a community tab that will feature the Non profits in Oakland. They also plan on publishing a newsletter in the future.