Hyperlocal is journalism’s latest buzz word. It’s also known as micropublishing or independent publishing. It’s the increasingly-studied online news and information ecosystem; a jolt in the creative disruption of traditional news media. Hyperlocal incorporates citizen journalism, social media and block by block reporting. First-time entrepreneurs are interested; so are large media organizations. Hyperlocal is organic, it’s innovative and it’s not sustainable. Not yet.
“We’re seeing an explosion of local online news startups across the United States,” reports Michele McLellan, a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow who helped host a gathering of hyperlocal publishers at the Block by Block: Community News Summit held in Chicago in September. “Even so, sustainability is a key challenge for most news publishers.”
Micro-publishers have a passion for what they do, so it’s no wonder a focus on the business model takes a backseat to showcasing reporting or perfecting design. “Content is cool. Revenue is an after thought,” blogs Howard Owens, publisher of the independent online news site, The Batavian.
That thinking can create a vicious cycle: Without compelling content, sites have little chance of attracting a large enough audience to offer any saturation for potential advertisers. Without advertisers, publishers risk losing a key tool in their own sustainability.
A recent survey of local advertisers in Evanston, Ill., a mid-sized college town just north of Chicago, showed a wide gulf between local businesses that used one of the various media outlets (print and online) to advertise and the vast majority that did not. Most mom-and-pop shops – and that includes everything from restaurants and retail to artists and non-profits – go untapped because journalists aren’t sales people and small business owners aren’t marketers.
That’s too bad, because the two are a great match, sharing the same goal of attracting a loyal and local consumer or audience base to keep the ship afloat. Linking them could be a large part of the solution, according to Owens. If hyperlocal news sites are to survive and fend off attacks from large competitors entering the space like AOL’s Patch, Owens suggests joining forces with the local business community.
“Do you accept only locally owned businesses as advertisers? If you don’t, you should. You should make it part of your publicly known mission that your goal is to help locally owned businesses grow. If your site currently has ad network ads, including Google AdWords, you need to remove that code from your site right now. If you’re going to be beat Patch, you need to be all about local and only local. And beat that drum as loudly and as often as you can.”
In the coming weeks, our Innovation Team at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern will continue to dig into the issue of sustainability in the hyperlocal news space. We’ll look at traditional news revenue models that have been successfully translated to online-only publishing and also new ways of thinking about monetizing hyperlocal. It might not be cool, but if micropublishers want staying power, it can’t remain last on the list.