Response to a critic of my hyper-local thinking

By Steve Outing

My recent Editor & Publisher Online column about hyper-local news websites contained a call for a new model, one that relies on professional journalists working closer with “citizen” (non-journalist) experts more so than being just open to submissions from non-paid community members (aka, “citizen journalists”). I followed that up with a blog item here suggesting that to succeed, a hyper-local strategy needs to have a way to target specialized news and information to people who care about it (since it’s “boring” to everyone else) and good personalization technology.

Mark Potts, one of the founders of Backfence.com, a defunct network of citizen-journalism websites, objected to my reasoning, and suggested that the quality of content on Backfence sites had nothing to do with the company’s demise. You can read his response in a guest column on E&P Online.

Here’s my response to Potts. I’ll start with a few excerpts from his critique of my column:

“On a hyperlocal site, the end result may be something that really can’t be defined as ‘journalism,’ but that is intensely interesting and important to the people who visit and contribute to the site.” …

“It’s also unfair to suggest that hyperlocal content is ‘of low quality and boring,’ as Steve does in his column. Low quality? To a professional editor, maybe, but the fact is that most participants in user-generated sites can communicate very well. It may not be ‘journalism,’ but it’s still quite readable and interesting.”

“And ‘boring’ is in the eye of the beholder. To an outsider, any hyperlocal information is probably boring. It may be to a transient resident, too. But to someone with a stake in the community, kids in the schools, paying taxes, dealing with community services, patronizing local merchants, etc., those arcane town council meetings, zoning disputes, tips on finding good pizza and kids’ sports scores are incredibly important — more so than just about anything a lot of us think of as journalism.”

“Let’s not go making flat statements about what doesn’t work, or what’s ‘boring’ about hyperlocal sites. It’s way too early in the game to even begin to know what the successful formula will be. Let’s celebrate those of us who are working hard, inside and outside newspapers, to crack the code.”

Let’s address the “boring” issue. What I wrote and believe is that hyper-local content, most often written by community members, is often “boring” to people who don’t care about the topic. BUT, when targeted to the right person (and this is where personalization technology comes in), it’s incredibly powerful and important. Ergo, sites that present a citizen-powered collection of news items (which inevitably include lots of press releases from community groups and others) need an overhaul.

For example, here’s a list of the “Featured” stories on July 2, 2008, from the Boulder, Colorado, section of Yourhub.com, a citizen journalism site operated by E.W. Scripps and the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. (Boulder is where I live, and I do care about local news and information. I’ve lived in Boulder for about 13 years, and I lived here once before in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Ergo, I’m pretty well rooted in this community.) Presumably, since these are included in the Featured block on the home page, these are the best submitted stories covering Boulder. By Potts’ reasoning, I should be interested in these stories.

  1. Hop on the biodiesel bus, don’t forget your bike. A 1-paragraph press release report about how Bike to Work day was a success; published 2 weeks ago.
  2. Annual festival ‘a circus’. 1-paragraph press release about a Boulder juggling festival, including a bunch of photos of the jugglers; published 16 days ago.
  3. A Little Light Music. An event description (press release) for a musical theater production at the University of Colorado; published 9 days ago.
  4. Boulder Creek Festival Kick-Off Concert! Press release about the Boulder Creek Festival, which was held over Memorial Day; published over a month ago.
  5. Congratulations to Boulder-area graduates. Yourhub.com staff put this together; it’s a compilation of links to lists of Boulder County high school graduates. Published over a month ago.

So those are the Featured stories for Boulder on Yourhub.com on July 2, the day I’m writing this. I also clicked on the list of all stories submitted to Yourhub under the Boulder category. For July 2, there are 7 stories in the list:

  1. Poorly written essay by Boulder guy about he and his buddies skiing all 28 California resorts.
  2. Press release for community theater of nearby town (Louisville).
  3. Press release about traveling presidential memorabilia visiting Denver. (No Boulder connection.)
  4. Story about the second anniversary of the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act. (I think this is a press release from the Smoke Free Colorado organization; no Boulder connection.)
  5. Story (or maybe it’s a press release; I can’t really tell) about teens raising money for Alzheimer’s Disease research. (No Boulder connection that I could discern.)
  6. An Arvada resident reminisces about an old Denver-area restaurant chain, The Drumstick. (No Boulder connection.)
  7. Girl Scout press release about a promotion with Dairy Queen. (No Boulder connection.)

OK, I dare anyone to convince me that that collection of content is “interesting.” I’m a devoted, long-time Boulderite, and the only thing I found remotely of interest is the Yourhub staff compilation of high school graduates; I can look to see if any of my friends’ kids graduated. I sure have no desire to come back to check out the Boulder stuff on Yourhub after this exercise.

I chose to examine Yourhub Boulder, of course, to see if Potts is right that if you’re committed to a community, you do care about the kind of stuff that goes on sites like Yourhub, and that was carried by Backfence.com sites when they were still running. I can’t begin to describe how dull this collection of content is to me.

Now, I again will emphasize that I am not a critic of the concept of “citizen journalism.” To the contrary, I’m a believer in hyper-local! I just don’t think we’re doing it right yet.

Here’s what I’d suggest for a remodel of Yourhub, and what I think (in hindsight) that Backfence should have done. The user interface would look like this:

A user should be able to select from a list of topics, interests, organizations, etc. that he is interested in. This would generate a local-focused content stream of stuff over time that matches his interests. For example, I might select as my interests: mountain biking; cycling; running; “green”/environmental news; Boulder Open Space Department; trails news; Summit Middle School; University of Colorado School of Journalism; mosquito control; dogs; traffic delays/road construction; the Internet scene; venture capital community/investors; Boulder media; and news about my small neighborhood.

How would a hyper-local site serve up all that stuff? It would comb through various sources of news, events, and information that match those choices: newspaper staff; citizen contributors; local blogs (mostly external, but perhaps newspaper bloggers, too); websites and newsletters of community groups, schools, and government agencies; discussion lists (aka, listservs) and forums devoted to various topics (e.g., local mountain biking group) and run by various local organizations; local databases (police department, health department, Realtors’ groups). It would intelligently parse through a growing list of news, data, and information sources and deliver to me what I care most about. The hyper-local site ideally would become the place I look first for what I care about or need to know locally; Google serves that purpose now.

This gets close to what the American Press Institute’s Newspaper Next 2.0 report suggests: the newspaper as “local information and connection utility.”

I’m standing by my criticism of much (NOT ALL!) hyper-local content as “boring.” I’ll stop saying that Yourhub Boulder’s content is boring when it starts including content from the school my daughter goes to, and when it also brings me news about my nearby neighbors, and so on.

What about other local news? Am I suggesting that I don’t care about that? Not at all. That’s what my traditional local newspaper website is for. Here in Boulder we have lots of fascinating stuff going on, from adverse possession controversies to naked bicyclists getting a pass while a naked jogging priest gets arrested. The newspaper site is great for that, and I’m devoted to reading it day-in and day-out. It’s the hyper-local sites covering Boulder with their dull content about minor local events and happenings that don’t interest me that I can live without (please).

Just give me the good hyper-local stuff! Then I’ll be happy, and the hyper-local publishers (be they newspapers or independents) will have a business.

This is a complex subject, and I’m glossing over some other possible solutions. For example, I think that having a strong and attractive personality at the center of a hyper-local website can be tremendously effective in gaining an audience and creating a strong community of users. And I think that some of the weaknesses of non-professional content can be dealt with by some professional editorial oversight or help (a pro-am approach). I also think it makes sense for newspapers playing in the hyper-local space to integrate that into the main news website, instead of putting it “over there” in a silo for the “non-professional” stuff. But this has gone on too long already, so I’ll leave those discussions for other days.

I write this with all due respect for my friend Mark Potts, who I’ve known for many years. I’m having a hard time remembering when we last disagreed on an issue. But we’ll have to disagree on this one.

I want to see hyper-local succeed. Who knows if I’m right in my thinking on this; we’ll see as hyper-local plays out. Lots of people are trying to make it work and “crack the code.” What I presented in my E&P column and in my earlier blog item is my attempt at that, and nothing more.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!