The recent retrenchment of Patch.com has raised lots of questions about hyperlocal media. Recently NPR's On the Media took a look at how this field has evolved and where it might be heading.
Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of N.Y., observes that hyperlocal media doesn't need to be big business in order to be good business -- and how the big-business genesis of Patch.com probably undermined its flexibility and sustainability. Also, hyperlocal publisher Howard Owen told OTM how The Batavian earned its must-see status in its coverage region.
The Dec. 20 episode of OTM included a segment, "A case of the hyperlocal cooties" -- "cooties" being a reference to Jarvis' March 8, 2013 blog post about how failures of some hyperlocal ventures might unnecessarily deter interest and experimentation in this emerging field. Earlier this month, Jarvis also blogged about his take on Patch's problems.
Jarvis told OTM: "When Patch got in trouble, people said, 'See, hyperlocal never works.' But the truth is that hyperlocal is not dead, and Patch didn't kill it. The problem was that Patch was really an old media company in its thinking: They set out to control the hyperlocal vertical. They vowed that they'd kill all the blogs in town. 'We're going to sell advertising the way its always been sold, space on a website.' But instead, the way hyperlocal will grow is that it'll scale from the bottom up."
Tow-Knight is working to develop a support system for 30-50 sites in the N.J. hyperlocal news ecosystem. These sites all have different approaches and business models, and they exist for various reasons. Jarvis is collaborating with CUNY, Montclair State University, WYNC and the Dodge Foundation to assemble a NJ hyperlocal content-sharing network and an audience-sharing network, and to provide training. "Soon by God, I'm going to put together an advertising sharing network for them, too," he said.
Another segment in the Dec. 20 OTM, The Talk of the Town, featured an interview with Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, an independent hyperlocal news venue that for five years has been covering Genesee County, N.Y.
Establishing a strong reputation for covering breaking local news is one of the key ways The Batavian has engaged their community. Owens recounted: "One of my advertisers was in the Verizon store across the street from one of our local fire halls. It was packed, being the holiday shopping season. The doors to the fire hall opened up, trucks rolled out, sirens blaring, lights going. Suddenly every person in that store was looking at their phone. Someone said, 'Howard hasn't updated the site yet.' My advertiser replied, 'Geez guys, give him a minute!'
"In a regular newspaper site, the fender bender on main street will never be at the top of the home page. But we have people in town, sitting in their offices; they hear ambulances going down the street and they're refreshing our home page page to find out whatâ€™s going on right now. We've trained people here to constantly check the site to see what that latest local news is."
Owens believes that local ownership is the key to success in hyperlocal media -- and this was the Achilles heel of the patch approach. "When Patch started it was a good concept: one journalist and one editor in each community," said Owens. "But there are multiple advantages to having local ownership, rather than just local staff. This includes building relationships to advertisers, to having that personal investment that you're gonna get up at 2:30 am to go cover a fatal accident because it's your business, not just your job."
Patch.com sites were often criticized for having too much "light" coverage, but Owens believes that for community media that's an important part of the mix. He calls it "cat crosses the street journalism," and contends that often this attracts strong community engagement as evidenced by comments, page views, and social media sharing.
The Batavian has been very successful with community engagement. Owens confirms that the site "definitely reach 50-70%" of Genesee County's 57,000 residents per month -- and about 18% visit the site on any given day. "That's substantially higher than a typically daily newspaper site sees," he said.
OTM host Brooke Gladstone asked Owens whether hyperlocal news is "being freighted with the challenge to save journalism, rather than simply being a success if it employs 1-2 people and fills in the gap in local coverage."
Owens responded, "There's a tendency to believe that a news chain or organization should spring forth in full flower. If you look at the history of the penny press 150 years ago, those outlets were not well staffed, nor were they producing what we'd consider high-quality journalism. It'll take time for local online media to grow, and there is a tendency to judge online local media today by old-school standards."