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June 27, 2012, 3:34 p.m.
Business Models

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.”

POSTED     June 27, 2012, 3:34 p.m.
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