Hyperlocal journalism: build a community, be useful

Let’s take a quick drive-by of hyperlocal journalism, because the principles behind it infuse so much of what we think about and do in this class.

I told you how Backfence failed. This postmortem from co-founder Mark Potts explains why. The key thread running through his analysis is that Backfence failed to generate sufficient community, conversation, and creation on the part of contributors. (Lots of C’s in there.) That’s important to remember as you build a case study for the midterm: Beyond merely tech wizardry, what is your target site doing to build and sustain community?

Let’s suss out some of the most salient points from Potts …

Engage the community. This may be the single most critical element. It’s not about technology, it’s not about journalism, it’s not about whiz-bang Web 2.0 features. It’s about bringing community members together to share what they know about what’s going on around town.

It’s not journalism — it’s a conversation. Actually, it’s whatever the community wants it to be. The magic of hyper-local sites, be they Backfence, other startups, Yahoo Groups or local blogs, is that they provide a forum for community members to share and discuss what’s going on around town. The back-and-forth of a good online conversation can be as rich, deep and interesting — or more so — than traditional journalism. In fact, the role of journalists in this process is overrated — except maybe by journalists! The less involved site managers are, aside from lightly moderating the conversation, the better.

Leverage social networking. The rise of MySpace, Flickr, YouTube and the commercial version of Facebook — virtually all of which have happened since Backfence launched more than two years ago — demonstrates the power of social media. Local communities are social beehives anyway. Why not take advantage of existing local connections and the virality and marketing reach of social tools such as member profiles, “friending” tools, widgets and the ability of members to exchange messages with each other? This was an element we unfortunately were unable to get off the drawing board at Backfence, because of business issues and other priorities.

But, the success to hyperlocal goes beyond community alone. It means having a site with real utility that helps people accomplish things in their local area. As Publishing2 points out:

Hyperlocal is about “community,” sure, but on the Web it’s more about utility — hyperlocal is where we lead our daily lives and all the things we need to get done. We need to know where to live, where to find the zoo, where to eat out, where to play golf, where the local YMCA is, and where to see a dentist.

The problem with all the thinking on hyperlocal is that it’s focused on what we think people need, i.e. more local news reporting, not what they want, i.e. help getting things done — web publishers figured out 10 years ago how to give people what they want, and then Google stepped in and took care of the rest.

That doesn’t mean that hyperlocal can’t evolve in the 2.0 era — but it needs to do so with a keen understanding of how the Web works, and not a nostalgia for how local newspapers used to work.

Much more out there on the promise and peril of hyperlocal journalism. So, how do we do it right? Hopefully, we’ll have some answers at semester’s end.


5 Responses to “Hyperlocal journalism: build a community, be useful”

  1. 1 Samantha G. October 3, 2008 at 1:12 am

    I am so glad you posted this! I had planned to mention the element of my blog being ‘hyperlocal’ as one of it’s core elements that make it different and brings in it’s audience etc…

    This post and accompanying articles help me to understand and explain why it is a perk, and an asset to the site in a much more comprehensive manner. I think that being hyperlocal is possible and extremely important to the success of a site despite its few drawbacks.

  2. 2 Seth C. Lewis October 3, 2008 at 9:02 am

    Great! You’ll be happy to know, Samantha, that we’re taking up hyperlocal more in detail on Monday, now that we have a little more time before the midterm.

  3. 3 pieper12 October 6, 2008 at 1:02 am

    I think being hyperlcal is very important today because it enables the readers to become so much more engaged in the blog than ever before.

    The site I am doing my midterm paper uses hyperlocal because it completely relies on the readers’ content to keep the site running and interesting.

    Despite the problems of hyperlocal, I think many of the kinks will be worked out soon because it seems to be getting easier and easier to navigate through the web each day.

  1. 1 It’s the community, bstupid/b Trackback on October 1, 2008 at 10:28 am
  2. 2 The cult of Rob Curley (or, another look at hyperlocal) « The Future of Journalism Trackback on October 4, 2008 at 12:25 am

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