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.

14 Responses to "Response to a critic of my hyper-local thinking"

  1. Mark Potts
    Mark Potts 6 years ago .Reply

    Again, Steve, you’re basing your critique on a very limited sample: YourHub in Boulder. There are dozens of YourHub communities; are they all so sparse? It takes a lot to make user-generated hyperlocal sites work, including active marketing and site management, the right community demographics, smart site design that encourages participation, and more.

    Yep, YourHub Boulder sounds pretty lame. But without knowing if any of those important factors are in play to make user-generated content work, it’s hard to judge it a failure.

    I do know this: “If you build it, they will come” flat-out doesn’t work for user-generated hyperlocal sites. Sounds like that’s where YourHub went wrong, in Boulder, at least.

    And btw, if you want better content on Boulder YourHub, why don’t you contribute some yourself? Want coverage of your daughter’s school? Write it! That’s the essence of user-generated–getting in-the-know users like yourself to share information with their neighbors. Otherwise, you’re just lurking–and wishing it were better.

  2. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 6 years ago .Reply

    Mark, I think you are missing my point. No hyper-local operation is yet giving me the (micro?) hyper-local news I want. It’s out there; someone (local newspaper, perhaps!) just needs to leverage it.

    You say I could provide coverage of my daughter’s school. My youngest just graduated from elementary school, and during the years she was there another dad and I were webmasters for the school’s website. (Well, I cut back my activity the last year or so.) We put all sorts of hyper-local school news on that site. And the principal has her weekly newsletter. Why would I add to our workload to contribute to Yourhub or the Daily Camera’s MyTown hyperlocal site? It should be those sites that tap into my daughter’s school’s website and publications, and every other school in the county.

    They should be thinking more like Google; they should become the local information utility, that knows about that school website and its newsletters, and makes that content accessible.

  3. Barry Parr
    Barry Parr 6 years ago .Reply

    Steve, this is right on target. Most major-metros’ and top-down startups’ “hyperlocal” sites are boring because the providers don’t know the communities they cover and don’t care to.

    I publish plenty of press releases on Coastsider because I consider it an important part of my service to the community, but I also know that it’s less of a service to the reader. When I don’t have hard news or analysis on the site, I can see it in the traffic.

    I’ve also learned that you have to cultivate the people who know the good stuff and who are capable (with some help) of communicating it. It’s hard work and you have to do it retail, not wholesale.

    This also means that a strategy based on “scaling” the business so your variable costs of adding communities and citizen journalists are kept low isn’t realistic. It’s a grubby, penny-pinching business. Just like journalism used to be back in the day.

  4. [...] Steve Outing: Response to a critic of my hyper-local thinking. [...]

  5. Dan Pacheco
    Dan Pacheco 6 years ago .Reply

    If I can just play devil’s advocate here, I think this comment of yours is telling: “I can’t begin to describe how dull this collection of content is to me.”

    In your view, it’s all about you, right? That’s OK, I’m not attacking that statement. You’re hardly alone. Because in my view, it’s all about me. And to my wife, it’s all about her, and my friends are ultimately interested in what they’re into. Sometimes we share interests in common, but in most cases we don’t. We’re all individuals.

    One of the biggest problems with editorial oversight is that it makes it easy for us to fool ourselves into believing that we know what everyone else will be interested in. It’s the lure of the ivory tower. The truth is that for any editorial decision you make, only a small subset of people will agree with your choices. You can call that subset a niche.

    I can tell you for certain that the regular readers and participants of YourHub, and Northwest Voice, and Bakotopia, and even Backfence and Enthusiast Group sites, really connect(ed) with those brands. The problem is that it’s very difficult to build a business out of just a few niches. That’s not the fault of “citizen journalism,” but a significant problem that can be solved.

    A successful niche strategy requires MANY MANY niches. So we should be trying to figure out how to position ourselves as the owner of a network of niches. Let thousands of enthusiasts build their little ivory towers of a few hundred people.

    Don’t think this is possible? Check out Ning. Marc Andreessen (founder of Netscape) has done it. So maybe the question we should ask is how we can do what Ning has done at a local level, and also leverage the unique knowledge and assets we have for “terrestrial” distribution of content — i.e. print.

  6. mr local
    mr local 6 years ago .Reply

    enough about backfence already. it’s cooked.
    there are plenty of other examples of successful local sites / applications / content. why don’t we start focusing on them rather than continuing to give legs to a dead duck and platform for its creators?

  7. Dan Pacheco
    Dan Pacheco 6 years ago .Reply

    Here’s a more detailed version of what I posted above: http://tinyurl.com/6mj937

  8. Mike Hudson
    Mike Hudson 6 years ago .Reply

    How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Or how many failed Internet impresarios can argue about a business exactly nobody has turned a profit on while still agreeing that newspapers suck?

    Question for Mr. Outing: How do you make a living? It can’t be this blog, since even with a link on E&P you’ve still only managed to generate six comments plus this one in the past couple of days. You’ve written ad nauseam about the lessons you’ve learned when your own business failed, you seem not to be able to afford a daily newspaper and E&P Online can’t be paying you all that much for what, a monthly column.

    What is it that you do, you know, to pay the rent?

  9. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 6 years ago .Reply

    Mike: That was a mean-spirited comment. Things getting tense out there in newspaperland? … Fine, I can see how you might find Mark and I arguing over businesses that didn’t make it not your cup of tea. On the other hand, his company (Backfence) and mine (which was not hyper-local, but still has relevance because of its reliance on user content) burned through several million dollars in attempts to figure out how to turn “citizen journalism”/user content into a business. I like to think that efforts like that (and there are many others in the UGC space that also failed) don’t just waste investors’ money, but advance things so that others who follow can learn from our mistakes and perhaps crack the code. I believe hyper-local can become an important industry; do traditional media companies want to take part, or let Google, et al have it and get further entrenched in local markets?

    To your more personal question, this blog is like many a personal blog: my outlet of expression, and not an income source. I post it when inspired about something; I have no expectations about readership. I continue to write my E&P column as I have for many years; it’s a very small part of what I do. I’m currently working on a couple of entrepreneurial projects; one is tied in with the newspaper industry, the other is not.

  10. [...] Response to a critic of my hyper-local thinking – SteveOuting.com “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” (tags: internet newspapers newspapersites hyperlocal participatory journalism backfence) [...]

  11. [...] think they both make some interesting points, [and there is a running exchange going here] but I want to add a few other frequently overlooked points about the whole “media [...]

  12. bob brouse
    bob brouse 6 years ago .Reply

    Hi
    Think this kind of conversation is important. Mainly for the free information, I am not certain why someone would ask you how your finances work, anyhow, our site water.ca does make money. We have what is called a boil water advisory map and we charge folks to let them know there is trouble with their neighbourhood water. Beats going to the clinic. There are ads sold, we charge for directory upgrades, there are sponsors for the special reports.
    Dont learn all this stuff because it fell from the sky I can assure you. Its blogs and sites like these that help. As for newspapers,I havent exactly figured out why they tank, some arrogance, some misguided ventures, the attack of ebay,monster and the like. One fo the things a paper still has, is you the viewer, you read an editorial you dont like you get steamed! the real issue isnt us dying off(the readers) is the being borns(young people) they just count on tv, the web, twitter, unless the paper has a snoop dog special with a twitter site at the end(ask for the action!) not sure how to help you newspaper heads. And..just before mister finance jumps on me,i am accredited at the national press theatre in Ottawa, and was the first accredited web journalist there. Should have tried explaining the internet to the newspapers ten years ago.
    all the best in your column and career.
    bob brouse.

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  14. [...] came across the following interesting article while browsing via SteveOuting.com. A good read for everyone working in newspaper industry.  Email This [...]

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