I’ve been posting about my experience with the HashBrum project (Parts one , two and three), a hyperlocal news project, with all the things that were and could have been. But what i haven’t discussed here in detail is why the hyperlocal news websites are so darn important. Are they just a fad? I don’t think so. But although i think they can’t substitute traditional media, they can do things traditional media can’t do, for several reasons, mostly structural and strategic. There is a gap in the local coverage that these websites and their creators can fill, and a need for this type of news.
I asked to Adam Westbrook, Adrian Holovaty, Josh Halliday, Rob Powell and William Perrin for five things hyperlocal websites can do (or do better) that mainstream news websites can’t. It is interesting to see there are a lot of common ideas, and a inherent philosophy and attitude to these projects.
Adrian Holovaty, EveryBlock
Adrian Holovaty is the mind behind chicagocrime.org and EveryBlock, the websites that set the standards for all things hyperlocal. He is also probably the most well known journalist/programmer of the 2.0 era, and most likely the first to find success. He was awarded with a Knight Foundation grant in 2007. Adrian kindly accepted my challenge, and he wanted to make one thing clear:
“I’m only qualified to talk about what EveryBlock does, as opposed to hyperlocal news sites in general, so here’s a list of five things EveryBlock does that mainstream media sites don’t do.”
Here’s Adrian’s list:
1. Geographic granularity. Give people a way to follow news around a particular block. This is the main focus of EveryBlock, where we give each city block its own Web page, its own RSS feed and its own e-mail alerts. Here’s an example, the 1030 block of W. Addison St. in Chicago: http://chicago.everyblock.com/streets/addison-st/1030-1063w/
2. Geographic customization. Give people a way to draw custom geographic boundaries to specify their area of interest. Our “custom locations” feature lets you draw an arbitrary area in your neighborhood that selects the streets you’re interested in following. Here’s a video that demonstrates the feature: http://www.everyblock.com/screencasts/customlocations/
3. Geographic messaging. Give people a way to post news to specific geographic areas. Our “Notify your neighbors” feature lets people post messages (news reports, classifieds, etc.) to their blocks, with a sophisticated level of targeting.
4. Subject matter granularity. Give people information that’s “too small” or otherwise not important enough for mainstream news sites, such as restaurant inspections (http://sf.everyblock.com/restaurant-inspections/), building permits (http://chicago.everyblock.com/building-permits/) and fire department dispatches (http://seattle.everyblock.com/fire-dispatch/).
5. Topic customization. Give people ways to control which types of information they get and how often they get it. For example, EveryBlock lets you choose which types of information you want to get daily, weekly or “as it happens”: http://seattle.everyblock.com/locations/neighborhoods/capitol-hill/alerts/
William Perrin, Talk About Local
William Perrin is well known in the british hyperlocal scene, if we consider there’s one. He is a resident of Kings Cross, and one of the creators and contributors of kingscrossenvironment.com. Nowadays he is working on Talk About Local, “a project to give people in their communities a powerful online voice. “
I asked for five things, Will delivered six, just for you.
1. Live there, right in the thick of it. As papers migrate to regional production centers their connection with the community is often lost.
2. Respond rapidly in near real time to a situation on the ground. By virtue of being there in the first place and using simple web technology with no editorial processes.
3. More granularity. Dog shit outside my front door is of interest to my neighbours but, reasonably can’t be of interest to people on the other side of a newspapers patch.
4. Do it for free. People are inspired to do things for their community and contribute to hyperlocal sites as part of their local volunteering. Local campaigning is mainly about communication – the web enables them to do that more effectively and using less precious time.
5. Show real passion and commitment. Creating a more genuine effective voice – this comes from all the above – see digbethisgood versus RDA promotional literature.
6. Follow stories that have no reall commerical value. ie you couldn’t sell advertising against them – such as excruciating detail of council meetings – see pitsnpots.
Josh Halliday, SR2blog.com
I met Josh at the news:rewired event, and I didn’t know then he was the behind SR2, a “community-run neighbourhood news website, dedicated to the SR2 area of Sunderland.” When I imagined Hashbrum’s layout in my mind, it was exactly like his website is designed. So I like his work, and I think he has an excellent taste. And he is a smart an industrious young man.
Here’s what he has to say:
1. One of the fundamental advantages of independent hyperlocal news sites over ‘mainstream media’ local/regional websites is the bottom-up, reactive way they can implement the changes to the way their information is consumed. There’s no proprietorial template or organizational hierarchy they have to adhere to, there’s no middlemen based hundreds/thousands of miles away deciding the best way for visitors to use your site.
2. Quite a few (not all) local/regional newsrooms in the UK have found themselves in a situation where only a handful of people are trained to publish news online, either due to lack of resource (time and/or money) and/or a lack of digital strategy. Thus when news breaks post-4pm on a weekday or throughout the weekend there’s no one to get the information out there on any other platform than the newspaper. I found myself in that situation last month – news broke early on a Saturday, the local newspaper reported with two paragraphs but then missed the next 31+hours developments which SR2 Blog scooped up. [Full story at the link]
3. Hyperlocal news websites generally give a much better instantaneous picture of the relevant area than the website of the local/regional newspaper. Embedded maps, which have become something of a must-have for hyperlocal sites, have great potential for presenting trends and developing issues in an area – as EveryBlock perfectly demonstrates. These maps are something that proprietorial local news publishers have so far not pursued and even snorted at. Should I live in Villette Road, Sunderland SR2, I can find my street on the map and within seconds I can see that in the last few weeks on my streets and those within a couple of minutes walking distance, there have been three assaults, a murder and a Christmas day fight outside a pub. You’ll then make of that what you will.
4. Hyperlocal news websites, as with all niche offerings, can serve up a tightly-focused audience (and new opportunities) for advertisers. Addiply has made placing an advertisement online as easy and transparent (and more measurable) as placing a notice in the corner shop window – this is advantageous for both publisher and visitor.
5. Hyperlocal is (usually) built atop an open-source platform with dozens/hundreds/thousands of people building new add-ons, plug-ins and customisations all the time. This extends the development side of the workforce well outside proprietorial boundaries and means small-staffed independent start-ups often have more easily navigable, usable and useful websites than mainstream local news publishers.
Rob Powell, Hyperlocal.co.uk
When I was looking for examples of hyperlocal websites, I came across with Hyperlocal.co.uk in one of my Google Reader feeds. It’s a map of most of the hyperlocal news websites in the UK, and a fantastic idea. I had to ask Rob about what he believes to be the top differences between hyperlocal, community based websites and the mainstream media. He went for something different, nonetheless, great.
“I tried to think of some stuff other than the obvious “cover street level news better than local press” (or regional press pretending to be local press) and I came up with 3!”
1. Respond quickly and “out of hours”. Because running a local website is often a labour of love, I can find myself putting stories up in the middle of the night. Competitor sites from the mainstream aren’t so hot out of normal office hours, and in at least one case I can think of, content doesn’t go on the website until its been in the printed paper which could be almost a week later.
2. Experiment and innovate. I find it easy to try out new layouts, widgets, plugins and tools because there’s no corporate bureaucracy involved. I can just try stuff out and see how it goes or ask the readers what they think.
3. Build relationships with other bloggers. My experience of traditional local press is they quite often pick up stories and rarely credit the source. They often have that mindset of pretending other news sources don’t exist. Whereas if I am following up on a story which I have seen on a blog, news site or Twitter, I will certainly link to it which gives a nice feeling of engaging with people and becoming more like part of a conversation.
Adam Westbrook, AdamWestbrook.wordpress.com
Last but not least, Adam Westbrook, another of the young bright minds that I have met recently. Adam recently wrote a book dedicated “to help all hyperlocal bloggers big or small, young or old, get the news that matters to their community” (you can get it here, and it’s worth the price).
1. Innovate & experiment. Although many newspapers might think differently, they (like all large companies) are terrible at innovation. It requires creativity, a chance of failure and a risk of losing money, all three of which are discouraged in a busy newsroom. And these are valid concerns. Small hyperlocals – sometimes only one person – are the antidote to this. They can afford to risk failure as they build their brand, especially if it becomes part of the brand itself. They are able to experiment with lower costs than the mainstream media. So my message to hyperlocals is: take advantage of this! Discard your first idea for covering a story and try to reinvent the wheel just a little every time you publish.
2. React quickly to new technology. On a similar note, the mainstream media struggles to pick up new technology quickly. We’ve all seen how long it took them to bring in blogs, podcasts and introduce social media. Many haven’t even managed that yet. So how quickly will they react when the next big thing comes along? Almost certainly at a snails pace again. Hyperlocals websites on the other hand should put themselves on the frontline and try new software, new plugins and even new kit. Be the ones showing everyone else how it can be done.
3. Dig the dirt.Even though they are much smaller, hyperlocal blogs do have a newsgathering advantage over mainstream alternatives. Sure, many newspapers are very good at covering the council/city hall beat. But if you’re a hardpressed reporter, with two deadlines in the next hour, and that police chief still hasn’t called you back, how long are you really going to spend reading through that Licensing Committee meeting agenda? The hyperlocal blog – with no formal deadline needs – can afford to spend time really leafing through the tomes which enable democracy to work – and afford to spend time getting it to print before anyone else.
4. Build a community. I don’t just mean an online community, because many newspapers do that well. The hyperlocal blog has the advantage of covering a much smaller area, and can build not just an online community of readers and contributors, but a real-world community as well. Don’t just be a website with your town’s name at the top – be part of your town’s beating heart! Fundraising pub quiz nights and regular contributor coffee mornings are just two examples I just came up with.
5. Collaborate & outsource. And newspapers, like all large traditional companies, have to go through a lot of red tape to collaborate with outside bodies. Normally if you work with them you’re a full time employee, freelancer or sub contracted. That limits the opportunities newspapers have to work with really talented journalists and creatives. Not a problem for hyperlocal bloggers though, who can find and work with excellent investigators in the next town or great designers in Tokyo.
I guess you have enough food for thought for now. I’ll sum this up and finish this hyperlocal series in the next post. Leave your own ideas in the comment box.