When I joined a group of hyperlocal news site publishers in 2011 to talk about creating the trade group that eventually became LION, there was a great deal of disagreement over what qualities distinguished a hyperlocal news site. Most of that disagreement remains unsettled among publishers I believe. Because hyperlocal news sites serve so many different types of communities with so many different types of content, there are a million different ways to categorize them.
However, as I’ve spent a great deal of my time trying to figure out what makes a hyperlocal site financially viable, I’ve come upon one way of categorizing sites that, in my opinion, clearly breaks apart sites. They are:
1. The Progenitors. These sites are the ones founded in the early days of internet blogging, and they have the strongest reputations: West Seattle Blog (est. 2006), RedBankGreen (est. 2006), BaristaNet (est. 2004) and Gapers Block (est. 2003). Coming up on ten years of operation, these sites have thrived and survived so long because they are great products with deep community roots. But because they started in the early days of the interwebs their success will likely never be duplicated.
Digital news sites launching today compete with a kajillion more places calling for reader’s attention than the ones that started back in the day. They will never get the word of mouth the earliest news sites once got. Pointing to these sites as typical hyperlocal examples is akin to citing The New York Times as a typical newspaper.
2. The Small Marketers. If news in a metro area or town can be generally characterized by four mediocre local TV stations, an aging local daily newspaper and maybe a rapidly thinning independent weekly, you’re talking about what I call a small market. It could be in a town of 30,000 or a small city of 400,000. Either way, readers and businesses have relatively few places to turn to advertise their products and services.
These markets don’t have Everyblock, Patch, probably not Craigslist, Yelp or multiple ZIP Code-focused magazines competing for eyeballs and segmenting interest into a thousand different categories. In these towns it is still possible to serve the geographically general public with a general interest publication, which is essentially what local news is.
If you’re dead set on starting a hyperlocal news site, then my advice would be to choose a town under 100,000 that’s at least a three-hour drive from a big metro area (preferably more) and set up shop. You won’t have nearly as much ad competition as you would in a big metro and because most local news outlets will be sparse on content, you’ll be able to make a quick splash just by doing good reporting.
3. The Big Metros.The jury is still out on whether this is fertile hyperlocal ground (Center Square Journal’s example not withstanding). There are a few thriving major metro area suburban hyperlocals, such as Gazebo News and Berkeleyside. There are even fewer thriving hyperlocals in major metro cities-proper. South Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bites does well in an immigrant community largely ignored by daily newspapers and Arlington Now benefits from D.C. media’s general disinterest in local news. But there are few other revenue-supported independent news sites in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Houston or any other top ten major metro areas.
Why is it that communities with the biggest talent pools have the fewest hyperlocal news sites?
Americans living in major metro areas are constantly assaulted with a blizzard of information choices. Those of us in “hip neighborhoods” or highly desirable suburbs even more so. For example, a young couple in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood would be able to turn to the following places for local entertainment news: Chicago Social, Metromix, DailyCandy, Thrillist, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, Time Out: Chicago, Red Eye, Chicago Reader, Chicago Parent, Neighborhood Parent Network (remember the kids!), Chicago Magazine, Wicker Park-Bucktown Patch, Wicker Park Bucktown Chamber of Commerce and many more I am sure I have overlooked. If you’re a local bar or restaurant advertising specials, which one do you choose? Of course: You pick the one with the biggest marketing budget.
Suburbs have a bit less competition, but even they can have intense competition. Oak Park, Illinois, a prosperous close-in Chicago suburb with 52,000 souls is served by Oak Park Patch, the Wednesday Journal and Oak Leaves, as well as the major metro dailies and other regional publications.