Jeffrey A. Haines' Blog
Regionalism is Still The Future
After Rob Curley announced that he and his skunkworks team are leaving the Washington Post a few weeks ago, there was a large amount of publication and blogger fallout over the state of “hyperlocal.”
To be fair, since its inception, LoudonExtra has been subject to criticism, even from county natives. The main gripe seems to be that the county’s population is so diverse economically and socially that a one-fits-all website can’t speak to each and every resident.
NOTE: The following is an edited attempt to better explain the text that appears in italics below. I did not take the time to adequately review my sources, and thanks to a generous comment and explanation by Mr. Hartnett, I see where I did not invest enough effort in carefully reading linked posts and was unfair in my portrayals. The italicized text is included to provide context for his comment.
At what “zoom” level does hyperlocal work? State? County? City? Neighborhood? Currently, although I am impressed with the efforts of sites like Backyard Post to focus on the extreme detail level while still uniting large geographical areas, I feel that they are almost glorified spreadsheets. I have a hard time seeing what benefits neighborhood mapping efforts actually create. Backyard Post’s William M. Hartnett has created an amazing map database, but can his company really design enough features around this information to make it truly useful or profitable before community boundaries and demographics change? To me, it seems like an uphill battle for little reward. Please read Mr. Hartnett’s comments post below, as he makes some great arguments against my lines of thinking.
Do people even care about super-duper-local? Community websites, generally, do a good job of covering board meetings and block parties. I feel that this extreme level of coverage, while not ideal, is adequate. These sites could work better by offering syndication feeds and inter-compatibility with other, larger news webspaces, but usually they do not have the monetary or computing resources.
Original text: At what “zoom” level does hyperlocal work? State? County? City? Neighborhood? Sites that look towards the extreme detail level but aim to cover a large geographical area, like Backyard Post, come off as glorified spreadsheets. What benefits do neighborhood mapping efforts actually create? Even Backyard Post’s William M. Hartnett admits (in a comments reply) that the whole practice is a little crazy. He has created an amazing map database, but can his company really design enough features around this information to make it truly useful or profitable before community boundaries and demographics change? To me, it seems like an uphill battle for little reward.
Do people even care about super-duper-local? Community websites, generally, do a good job of covering board meetings and block parties. This extreme level of coverage, while not ideal, is adequate. These sites could work better by offering syndication feeds and inter-compatibility with other, larger news webspaces, but usually they do not have the monetary or computing resources.
Local Kicks, a website that purports to be hyperlocal, boasts a crowded layout inundated with issues that are better covered by a national forum. As a male living in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, I’d rather get my Redskins news from The Washington Post, my national politics fix from CNN, and my lifestyle information from GQ.
The big sites cover all of this stuff much better than a hyperlocal publication could ever hope to. And, why would they ever want to? From my local site, I want to know about my former high school’s sports standings–and whose children are making the big plays. I want to know what’s going on at the county ordinance meeting, and how it will effect the boat in my backyard, or the patio I want to put in out front. I don’t care if Ralph Lauren Polo is all the rage in New York City–I want to know what local movers and shakers are wearing to the club on Friday night.
Big non-local organizations can’t hope to speak to individuals, and cannot seek to be successful. Big, media conglomeration sites like Philly.com are detached from discreet citizens, and can only ever hope to offer entertainment or general information–even with detailed databases. These sites need to look through a wide lens, and focus on covering “general” issues the best they can. People will always go to these sites, just as people make time to tune into the major television networks when they cannot find programming on more targeted cable stations.
Database information changes too often, and there are just too many database sites. Hyperlocal sites need to have carefully defined scopes. Right now there are lots of big sites covering big issues, and little sites covering small issues. There are also big sites that are trying to seem like small sites which cover the intimate details of one area.
Jeff Jarvis thinks that “local is people. Our job is not to deliver content or a product. Our job is to help them make connections with information and each other.”
I agree with Jeff, and in my opinion, there is still room for the mid-sized site–the site that exists at the county level, covers pee-wee sports, gossips when Lindsay Lohan is in town, and most importantly, brings people together on a local level. I feel that far too many people identify themselves on over-reaching scales (such as Republican, American, firefighter, or stay-at-home mom). Regionalism can bring people together at the local level, allowing them to identify and relate to eachother on common levels in a world that wants to segregate people into absolute sects or subcultures. Small can be the new big, and can create individual worth and meaning in an era that keeps pushing for group identity.
Thanks for the links, Jeff.
To be fair, my post is hardly about “the state of ‘hyperlocal.’” Rather, it’s about one particular supposed example of the genre, and my view that is was anything but.
As I stated in one of the other posts you linked to, the neighborhood layer I’m still creating here in South Florida already is profitable, because it already “powers” an incredibly lucrative print product totally separate from Backyard Post. Even lacking any editorial product at all, however, such an effort would be worthwhile because of the potentially incredible value it creates for a newspaper’s marketing and circulation efforts. The “crazy” part was deciding to single-handedly start making such a detailed investment in my community. The truly crazy part, however, is that every other newspaper in the country is NOT making a similar investment in their market.
Our “glorified spreadsheet,” as I’ve repeatedly stated, is still months away from a public release. While it is a technically live site today, it has received absolutely no promotion in our market, and reflects only a tiny fraction of both the editorial and advertising plans we have for it. Municipal boundaries might change, but neighborhood boundaries don’t, at least not in South Florida. That’s the sort of lesson you learn when you spend eight years learning the ins and outs of your market. As for changing demographics, we’re creating a tool that will allow residents to actually track the precise dimensions of such change.
Even accepting your “glorified spreadsheet” judgment as accurate, you’d likely find such a tool incredibly useful if you lived in real estate-obsessed South Florida. Another lesson you learn when you actually spend some time living in and learning about your community. Our real estate data automatically updates five days a week, with no human interaction whatsoever, by the way, so I’m not sure “database information changes too often” is a particularly relevant, or even coherent, point.
“Do people even care about super-duper-local?” If you had $300,000 or more tied up in your house and two children in the elementary school across the street from your neighborhood, yes, you do indeed care about super-duper-local. And I don’t know how much business-side research you’ve studied, but it may or may not surprise you to learn that 75 to 90 percent of public-facing businesses in a typical newspaper market are non-consuming, which is to say they have no advertising relationship whatsoever with the local newspaper. The No. 1 job to be done when those non-consuming small business owners are surveyed? Help me reach a targeted audience in a specific geography. Does that not seem like a problem to you, a fundamental market reality challenging your assertion that regionalism is the future, as opposed to the failed past?
I’ll keep drawing neighborhood boundaries, thank you, though I heartily encourage you to pursue whatever audience and business strategy you see fit with your own media endeavors.
Thanks for responding to my post. You make some great points in your comment, and give me a lot of hope for the kind of local coverage I am interested in. The first version of this blogpost was unfair, and I have edited it to more carefully express what I was trying to say, in light of your reaction.
Thank you for helping me to learn a valuable blogging lesson, and for taking time to participate in my blog.
I am posting some of the text of the email I sent you so that any readers can have some context for my edit:
“In no way did I mean to trivialize or attack your work, and I will edit my post to hopefully better clarify my intentions.
I am really impressed with the breadth of the work you have been able to do, and I really hope you are extremely successful at utilizing the treasure trove of information you have been able to collect and that you are able to create a great place for community interaction.
I am just now graduating college, and I am, admittedly, extremely inexperienced. You accomplishments dwarf anything I have done, and probably will be able to do for the foreseeable future. I don’t have a journalism degree, and I am definitely not a programmer, but I am trying to figure out a way to use my multimedia production skills to create “community” at a local level, because I am personally disturbed by the lack of investment and interest people seem to have in the places they live, work, and play. I think that any effort to better inform people about what is going on around them and show them how to get involved in their communities is a valiant pursuit.
I have been trying to process all of this reaction to Rob Curley’s move from the Post, because the feeling of “failure” that people have been expressing towards his team’s LoudonExtra publication completely startled me. I was able to see one of Rob’s presentations via a digital video recording while at an internship last year, and his pitch excited and intrigued me. The idea of an online social community in respect to a geographical community seemed like the perfect way to remedy the shortfalls of large publications and to better equip people to live their lives.
Looking back at my rash post, I can see that I was not fair in my description of Backyard Post, and that I spoke and criticized before I adequately understood what you have accomplished and what you meant. I am very new to the world of blogging, and I appreciate that you read my post and took the time to respond to much of what I said.
Again, I did not mean to attack you personally, and I was not attempting to intentionally deride your work. I did not think before I typed. I am extremely impressed with the data you have amassed and I think you have created a killer presentation for it. It is obvious you have invested thousands of hours of work and have personally committed yourself to creating the best site possible–and it shows.”
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