Behind the Hyperlocal Hype

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Different Approaches, Different Results

But independence doesn't necessarily guarantee success. One example of the difficulties faced by independent hyper-local news sites can be found about 1,500 miles from New Haven in Broward County, Fla., which is home to the Broward Bulldog, a local, not-for-profit watchdog news site that is located in one of the Sunshine State's most populous counties.

Founded in 2009 by Dan Christensen, a veteran reporter who has covered South Florida for 30 years, the Bulldog has been "successful," though Christensen believes that "advertisers want a larger audience than I could give them; although that's changing. Our host company reported we had over 50,000 [unique visitors to] the site in June."

Christensen, the publication's lone full-time employee, has been "making a living though I'm not making what I used to make; however, I'm hopeful at some point it might get that way," he says.

The Bulldog is "officially, legally a charity," says Christensen. "That's how we make most of our money. Even though you see ads on our site, they're mostly Google ads, which don't pay very well. Going forward, I don't believe advertising is a factor that will be sufficient-it's a factor but I think it's a minor factor."

Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor, Mich., one hyperlocal news site has found a winning formula that involves giving away advertising. Founded in July 2009, is an independent for-profit website that covers "news, opinion, culture and more" and features "smart, fearless, local journalism." The publication also features a very different business model-accepting donations from readers to access content while giving away ads for free to local small businesses and nonprofits. "That's what I've been doing and it is hugely successful," says Patricia Lesko, the editor and founder of A2Politico. Lesko, who works full-time as the publisher of a national higher education publishing company, grew tired of the poor news coverage she felt her city was getting from larger publications. In July 2009, she decided to start her own news outlet. 

"I'm a little bit ahead of my time-whether that's a blessing or a curse will be decided in another 30 years when I'm dead, but I thought, ‘How can we kind of turn this idea of surviving on advertising revenue on its head?' And one way is to provide high quality content that people want to read and not filler content."

Lesko felt she needed to do something drastic. "You're competing against larger companies, and if you're competing against larger companies for ad revenue, you're going to lose," she states bluntly. "What they can't do is they can't give it away for free; they can't compete with that." So at A2Politico, a donation-usually people pay between $50 and $100, says Lesko-allows readers access to content for a year.

The site certainly has gained traction in Ann Arbor. "The first month [July 2009] the site had about 1,000 readers and now it has about 40,000 readers," explains Lesko. In the long run, Lesko feels her business model will prove to be a success. "I know it's a model that can work in smallish towns like Ann Arbor," she says.

With most hyperlocal sites in no position to give away advertising as A2Politico does, why hasn't someone tried to make the seemingly successful nonprofit model work on a large-scale, commercial level?

"It's not that it can't be done-it's that it is hard to make it work on a large scale commercial level," explains Doctor. "What Paul Bass is doing [at the Independent]-we are seeing that in dozens of communities around the country but it is in the high dozens of people like him, maybe low hundreds now, where you have somebody who has journalistic ability and experience and they have the stamina to see through what is at least a five year proposition, and they can earn enough money to pay themselves."

Most nonprofit hyperlocals are "largely one or two person operations," says Doctor. "People are working, just like the Patch editors, 60 to 70 hours a week and some of them have made it but it's not a business model that is scalable in any way."

According a recent article from Quartz, Google has its sights set on hyperlocal and is in the process of trying out a local news card on its Google Now service. TechCrunch notes the news card would essentially be akin to the local daily newspaper being delivered to one's cellphone and would include information such as restaurant openings and crimes. The cards would be "tailored to your specific interests and bound to geolocation coordinates," adds TechCrunch.

"It's part of this landscape of knowing where people are and what their needs are; it's part of that landscape that's being built out and it's very much a test of Google to see: how might people use it?" says Doctor of Google Now. "Is it too intrusive? It is part of this potential of highly targeted geolocation; yet, at the same time, one of the big questions here is how uneasy people feel about it. That's going to hold it back."

Looking ahead, when asked which is better positioned to succeed in the long run-corporate hyperlocal news sites or independents-Doctor observes, "Big or small, independent or corporate, it's all in the model, journalistic and business."

For the time being, a hyperlocal news business model everyone can agree on (and profit from) remains to be determined, yet it's clear that there is value to be had in the hyperlocal news business-if you can find the right formula in the right community.

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