Tag a site hyperlocal and it’s doomed

The problem with creating a hyperlocal site is once you call it that, it’s doomed. Doomed to be irrelevant. Doomed to be ignored? Doomed to be abhorred by advertisers.

That’s my spin on a topic posed by Andy Dickinson in this month’s Carnival of Journalism.

His question for all the carnival writers was roughly around whether we would have accept the fact that local journalism doesn’t pay. I decided to address ideas on how to make hyperlocal or community journalism viable.

The history of hyperlocal site has many well-traveled journeys that came up short and many others that were lost before ever receiving hype.  It doesn’t take a lot of searching to find these listless ghost ships in the night.

They, in a word, weren’t LOVED.

If I had the formula for winning with hyperlocal content, or the equally dreadful phrase “community news” sites, I doubt I’d be writing this. I’d be too busy selling it. Every local publisher wants it and global players like Google and Yahoo want to conquer local as the last frontier.

Everybody wants a great site that dives deep, deep into local, but nobody is getting “9’s” when the judges hold up the scorecards  As a niche, is there something peculiarly wrong with local?

Nothing more than it being hard to do well, really hard. Magic sites of user generated content (build them and they will come) turned out to be another in a long line of perpetual motion proposals. Oh, but the drawings (business plans) did look wonderful

But while the well-funded efforts have mostly been failures, or more charitably, lack-luster performers, you can find in nearly every community, someone, who, without the benefit of capital budgets, marketing staffs and stock-option plans, has created a site that people recommend to others or that generates backyard buzz.

Let’s leave the magic behind and look at what good old-fashioned long hours, hard work and sharp pencils  have to offer. In addition to individuals who have created wonderful local online presences, there are numerous shoppers, weeklies, and small dailies that are darned successful in print. Well-read, attracting advertisers and profitable. There is quality evidence that there is both audience and advertisers for local news and infrormation.

Short of answers, I do have suggestions on what is needed to create a site focused on the small geographical areas known as local communities.

  • Find someone passionate about covering a community to lead it. Knowing and being engaged in a community is key. If the readers know more about the community than the writers, what is the value? Remember, Craig Newmark still handles customer service issues daily on craigslist. That’s passion for the product and the users.
  • Build standalone sites instead of a portal or umbrella site. A portal almost guarantees the site, and those who run it, aren’t focused. You can develop strategies to sell advertising across a group and maybe group them, but first convince me you’re an expert and definitive source for my area. Gawker Media, with its stable of content niche sites, might be a model of how to develop a stable of geographically focused sites.
  • Keep expenses low. Standard blog software might be all the CMS you need. TMZ.com, in a sense, covers a “community.”
  • It takes professionals. It has to be someone’s job to make a great site. Have a voice. Have a point of view. Bring knowledge of the community to provide perspective and insight.
  • It’s a news site, not a community album. If there’s news in your niche, no one else should have it first.  
  • Use user generated content to supplement and enrich, but don’t build the whole strategy on it. Be generous in linking out to the content of others.
  • Market it. This will mean speaking at clubs, posting fliers, waving the flag at community events. It’s not a TV campaign, you’re serving a small niche. This is ground level, door-to-door winning customers.
  • Set goals, assess brutally; refine incessantly. Develop measures to find out what’s being read and if it’s effective for advertisers. If it clearly is not working, shut it down and try another area with your learnings.
  • Consider thinking beyond geographic communities. Place may not be as compelling a magnet as Interests. Sites could be developed around youth baseball or soccer, local genealogy or for local history buffs.

That’s my thought-starter list. Do you have others to add?  Add them in the comments or start a conversation elsewhere.

This posting is part of the June Carnival of Journalism. This month’s carnival is hosted here. Read them all.