In Depth

Big Players Jump on the Neighborhood Beat

By Daisy Whitney

Call it hyperlocal, microlocal or locals-only, it’s becoming the new brass ring in journalism.

Hyperlocal, an idea that consumers crave nuanced details about their local communities, fueled by the belief that small businesses are eager to spend ad money on such sites, is promising the beleaguered field a potential new revenue stream, offering journalists, local bloggers and community experts new opportunities to make some money.

Among those organizations seizing the opportunity hyperlocal coverage presents are cable news Web site MSNBC.com and local station group Fisher Communications.

MSNBC.com acquired hyperlocal platform EveryBlock.com in August with plans to build out neighborhood information across the country.

Fisher, meanwhile, rolled out 43 community Web sites for the Seattle area during the summer, with information culled from both local bloggers and the professionals at Fisher-owned KOMO-TV.

Buoyed by statistics from local media research firm Borrell Associates that pegs online local advertising for 5.9 percent growth this year to $13.3 billion, online outlets like AOL and MSNBC.com, local broadcast groups like NBC Local Media and Fisher, and national papers like the New York Times are jumping at the chance to land these dollars for their pages.

In its Seattle hyperlocal test, Fisher is offering more local material online for neighborhoods like Queen Anne, Ballard and Capitol Hill in hopes of luring ads from local businesses serving those areas. If the Seattle experiment proves successful, Fisher said it will launch similar sites in its other markets including Portland, Ore., this fall.

Fisher’s content is highly local. A recent story on Fisher's Ballard.komonews.com site covered the opening of a local Whole Foods. Similarly, the Next Door Media-owned local site MyBallard.com in Seattle included photos of signs asking neighbors to report on any suspected drug activity, while another piece covered the sighting of a local man setting a white bag aflame in a nearby dumpster.

Besides KOMO reporters and community bloggers, Fisher draws its material from freelancers in the market. That’s similar to the approach by NBC Local Media’s model, which pulls not only from NBC staffers, but uses a network of free-lancers in each market. In fact, the key to economic success with a local site is relying on the people who live there — particularly if they’re willing to work for cheap.

“If you want to follow a traditional model of reporters that’s an expensive model, so you get amateur reporters to write stories and contribute content,” explained Charlie Tillinghast, president of MSNBC.com, which is also building out what it calls a microlocal model via EveryBlock.com, which collects data on local crime, 911 calls and even zoning ordinances.

“This is an area not served by any media,” Tillinghast said. “We are not trying to edge out the local newspaper or somehow aggregate everybody else. What we are doing is looking to get more involvement from the people who live there to annotate the information, so if there was a fire, people who live there could link to their own photos of it.”

Tillinghast said the Everyblock technology platform can be tailored for each community, so it operates as something of a template. That will let MSNBC.com scale the service across the country. It is already up and running in 13 markets, including Boston, Atlanta and San Francisco.

MSNBC.com is currently working on refining the revenue model for EveryBlock, Tillinghast said, but will rely on local advertising.

However, already existing local sites are competing for the same ad dollars, among them AreaGuides.com, with its network of more than 25 local sites in the Washington, D.C., area.

Founder Craig Shipp runs the AreaGuides.com sites in a lean-and-mean fashion, relying on a salesperson to canvas each local area and hit up restaurants, realtors and other small businesses. “The local business owners are who you have to convince,” he said.

Ultimately the hyperlocal notion is appealing because people live their lives in local communities, according to David Cohn, founder of Spot.US, a nonprofit project that funds community journalism.
“We are now more aware of what is going on in the world but we aren’t necessarily more aware of what is happening around the block,” Cohn said. “I bet there are plenty of college students who are more aware about events in Iran than they are in their city council.

“Of course we should be aware of what goes on in Iran, but we also need to know and watch our own city council,” he added. “The move towards hyperlocal is trying to figure that out — especially as newspapers, which were formerly tasked with that role, are shrinking.”