Will Hyperlocal News Work This Time?

We've been hearing about hyperlocal news for years, but in spite of many attempts at a platform play, nothing has really stuck. Just when you think a trend is pretty much doomed, someone comes along with investment capital and a new twist. Such is the case with The Tab, a U.K.-based variation on the hyperlocal theme that uses journalism students as unpaid writers, concentrates on university communities, and distributes the stories via social media.

Hyperlocal news, for those who aren't familiar with it, is news from your backyard-think coverage of your kid's soccer game or the neighborhood block party. These are the types of stories that matter to people in a small geographical area, but don't have a bigger reach. There are lots of examples of using the web to deliver this kind of news, especially at a time when local newspapers are down for the count and the type of news that matters for hyperlocal doesn't really get the attention of larger city newspapers.

The Columbia Journalism Review has a nice roundup of cities with hyperlocal (or just plain local) coverage, but the idea of a platform for delivering this kind of news in a repeatable way has never done very well. AOL (which owns TechCrunch, which I write for) put a lot of money into Patch, a service that was supposed to be that platform. A couple of years ago, AOL finally threw in the towel, dumping most of Patch on Hale Global, which, according to The Wall Street Journal, describes itself as a "technology holding company."

Patch had a big staff, decent funding, and the strong backing of AOL's CEO, Tim Armstrong. In spite of that, it failed.

Hyperlocal news actually has a lot going for it as a business model-mainly that it doesn't require a great deal of money. For starters, it tends to use unpaid journalists-often called "citizen journalists"-to write the stories that matter to them. It's delivered on the web or via a mobile app. It doesn't require an office or printing presses, so it has very low overhead. In theory, it should appeal to local advertisers, which would have access to an audience of local people that they used to target in town newspapers.

I wrote about the concept of citizen journalism in these pages way back in 2005. At the time, it had lots of shiny promise as a way to save local journalism when print papers were dying by degrees. As Web 2.0 began to gain steam in the early 2000s-giving regular people the ability to publish without a printing press-the idea of self-publishing on the internet began to take off. This gave rise to the notion of citizen journalists, untrained folks writing about issues they cared about, usually subjects the local papers used to handle when they existed-or, if they still did, when they had better budgets.

Similar to many vestiges of the early Web 2.0 days, it didn't quite go as planned, and hyperlocal platforms were a victim along the way. This brings us back to The Tab. It has a different slant on a familiar theme. Sure, it still wants to use unpaid labor, and it wants to be a platform-but it's using unpaid student journalism students as its grassroots staff. These kids have some training, and they're hungry for experience. It's a win-win situation.

The company uses modern distribution channels such as Snapchat to share the stories from university communities and drive traffic back to their site. The news is designed to interest the target student demographic in each locale. For now, the company has made its mark in the U.K., but with $3 million in venture capital to play with, it plans to open a New York office and try to expand the formula in the U.S., where there are plenty of universities.

If history is a guide, The Tab could face a rough road as it tries to transition to a platform play, but with some money in its pocket, and a different kind of formula, perhaps it can succeed where others such as Patch have failed. Time will tell.