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February 10 2011

16:00

Lance Knobel: For hyperlocal news, we local players will have the edge

Editor’s Note: In the increasingly competitive world of journalism, it’s easy to start declaring winners and losers. The reality will likely be somewhere in between; just as television didn’t kill radio, there’ll be room for lots of different kinds of news outlets in the Internet age.

So today, we’re going to feature two pieces by people whose medium of choice some have recently forecast to come up short: print newspapers (facing threats from tablets) and homegrown local news sites (facing threats from national networks).

First, Lance Knobel, cofounder of Bay Area news site Berkeleyside, argues that, despite the challenge from networks like Aol’s huge-and-growing Patch, sites at the grassroots have a stronger chance to succeed.

In the torrent of analysis on AOL’s acquisition of Huffington Post, relatively little attention has been given to the fate of Patch, AOL’s ambitious attempt to build a national network of local news sites. I have a dog in this fight: I’m one of the three founder-editors of Berkeleyside, the leading news site for Berkeley, California. So the growth of Patch — and its supposedly imminent expansion to Berkeley — has been something I’ve watched with keen attention.

The only concrete remarks I’ve seen on the Patch part of the AOL/HuffPo deal have referred to it as providing “local infrastructure” and to the benefits Huffington’s “reader engagement tools” will bring to the sites. I’m not sure I buy into either theory. I can perhaps see some logic in HuffPo having access to tons of very local journalism when, for instance, there’s a national election. What’s the mood in Walnut Creek? But when Arianna Huffington has spoken in the past about a desire to move into local she has clearly meant building city sites, not sites for towns in the 40,000 to 100,000 population where Patch is active.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of local online news sites, most of them run by local entrepreneurs, bootstrapping their way to sustainability (I avoid the term hyperlocal because it’s meaningless to most people). They get virtually no attention from most media observers. When attention is paid to what’s happening in local journalism the focus is on well funded ventures like Bay Citizen (Berkeleyside partners with Bay Citizen) or experiments by The New York Times and others.

I have nothing against these sites (although I’d like some share of the attention), since I believe we’re in a pre-Cambrian age of local online journalism. There is a bewildering variety of lifeforms and the likelihood is many won’t survive. We need all this experiment to find the proper evolutionary path. The truth is the bulk of the experimentation, the stretching of form, the innovative thinking is happening on sites like Berkeleyside, West Seattle Blog, The Rapidian, and many, many others. (Michele McLellan at the Reynolds Journalism Institute has been tracking this thoroughly.)

Those are the places, crucially, where the best journalism is being done as well. I know we cover Berkeley better than anyone else. We’re wholly dedicated to that task (well, wholly dedicated other than the work all of us need to do outside Berkeleyside to earn a living). We break stories, we engage the community, we’re deeply involved in the crucial debates in our city, we convene important live discussions as well. We write about the best of our city as well as the problems (that last link is not for the squeamish). Our commenters are overwhelmingly civil because they know they are dealing with their neighbors. We’re a source for action as well. We know of two businesses that survived largely because Berkeleyside wrote about them.

So isn’t Patch doing the same thing? Not quite, to my mind. There are some individual Patch sites that do a good job (our nearest neighbor, Albany Patch, is one). I have no belief, however, that you can create great or even good local sites out of a production line, no matter how much money you throw at them (Ken Auletta suggested AOL was spending $30 million a quarter on Patch). The constraint for local sites isn’t technical infrastructure or web skills — it’s finding the right people who combine a passion for their town or city with real journalism skills (and I make no distinction between those who come from conventional journalism backgrounds, like the three Berkeleyside founders, and people who have figured it out for themselves by leaping in and doing it).

Perhaps I’m old fashioned in thinking this can only happen organically. It’s not something that emerges from a strategic plan. If it did, we’d be creating Anytown-sides all over the place at the moment. We’re constrained by capital, of course, but the bigger constraint is people. We know that Anytownside wouldn’t be as good as Berkeleyside unless we could find people a lot like me and my co-founders.

Perhaps it’s easy to look at the media landscape and think local journalism belongs in big national networks. After all, in local papers you have behemoths like Gannett and Newhouse. But the papers inside these corporations were started one by one, just as Berkeleyside and others are being created today. Where I grew up there was a local weekly paper that was part of a network of a half dozen other local papers. It’s a fair guess that before that it was the creation of a lone entrepreneur. After I moved someone did a roll-up of these and other Chicago-area local papers, and that in turn was bought by the Chicago Sun-Times at some point. No one had the delusion they could create dozens or hundreds of local newspapers in one go.

I know our bet is that real journalism wins against “content” (see this excellent analysis of AOL/HuffPo to understand the distinction). I’m happy with that in the long run.

There’s also a commercial logic to our approach that I think is very difficult to duplicate at a national or even regional level. Look at the ads on any Patch site. (That’s a trick: There aren’t any on many Patch sites.) We’re doing well with advertisers, although we still have a long way to go. Why is that? Have you ever spoken to a local business owner? Online marketing is not top of their concerns. They are busy running their business, often struggling to survive in a punishing economy. So our job as a fellow local business is to help them understand just what marketing on the web is all about, a patient task of education. We often have to design their ad. We have to work with them one at a time. That’s only going to happen at an intensely local level.

If and when Patch launches in Berkeley I’ll welcome it. I’m in favor of more news providers rather than fewer. I also believe in the benefits of competition. I can crow about how good Berkeleyside is, but we can certainly improve. A competitor will push us. But in the battle between the truly local and the big corporate giants I think we local yokels have all the crucial assets on our side.

September 27 2010

17:30

Block by Block: Once you’ve launched, what’s Phase 2 of a community news startup?

Jay Rosen called it “entrepreneur atomization overcome.” And, for an event that put nearly 100 formerly disconnected community news publishers together in one place, it’s an apt description. When those publishers got together in Chicago on Friday to share their experiences in publishing — to talk, in particular, about on-the-ground matters like audience engagement, advertising strategies, and, of course, revenue generation — there was a prevailing sentiment: Why didn’t we do this earlier?

The Block by Block Community News Summit, principally organized by the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Michele McLellan (a former Nieman Fellow), was thankfully well-recorded, through means both ephemeral (its Twitter hashtag), slightly less so (its CoverItLive’d live blog), and much less so (its official blog). I don’t want to reinvent the wheel here, and if you’re at all interested in community news — and if you’re interested in the future of news in general, you probably should be — I highly recommend checking those out. In the meantime, though, here are some of the core ideas that emerged during the conference’s jam-packed day of panels, breakouts, and room-wide discussions.

Know — and grow — your role in the community

Community news sites, just like their larger and more established counterparts, need to be able to provide an answer when someone — a would-be reader, a potential advertiser or funder — asks, “So why do you exist?” As West Seattle Blog’s Tracy Record put it during the conference’s panel on engagement: “You have to think how different your publication is…what need is it filling?” Starting out, answering that question could involve filling a particular niche in terms of content, or simply stepping in to contribute community coverage that a local paper is no longer willing or able to provide. (As virtual attendee Whitney Parks noted in the conference’s Twitter stream, “ask your community what they want to know about and what issue they want covered.”) But the purpose has to be clear, and easily articulated. It’s the foundation of a site’s brand, which, in turn, is the foundation for its success or failure.

Embrace a new relationship with readers

During the conference’s closing session, Jay Rosen invoked that classic de Tocqueville line: “Newspapers make associations, and associations make newspapers.” In another context, and in another conference, that reference might have been laughably romantic hyperbole; at Block by Block, though, it fit right in. There was a sense — to engage in just a smidge of laughably romantic hyperbole myself — of symbolism in the room. In some ways, Rosen pointed out, the publishers in the room are going back to the early days of American journalism, in which the connection between publications and the communities they covered was implicit, and therefore intimate — and vice versa.

And that relationship, the conference’s modern-day publishers said again and again, should translate to sites’ interactions with advertisers and other members of their local business communities. As the Patterson Foundation, one of the conference’s sponsors, noted in a tweet, “Small sites have an opportunity to create a closer relationship with users b/c a brand is not standing in the way.” Mike Orren, from Dallas’s Pegasus News, agreed — if in a roundabout way. In the ability they have to rally people around particular events, he noted, “we’re a lot more like radio than like newspapers.” Local sites have the ability to summon people, to engage them — to join them together into communities. And they should leverage that power. As David Boraks of Davidson News put it: “We are not writing about the community anymore; we are writing for the community.”

Embrace a new relationship with advertisers

Local advertising is a $100 million business, GrowthSpur’s Mark Potts noted, and he said Google and AOL have more than 50 percent of that market. Their services are easy to use, but taking the time to develop relationships with local businesses — which is to say, fellow local businesses — is worth the investment, many publishers agreed. The key is humanizing the transaction. As Windy Citizen’s Brad Flora, a 2010 Knight News Challenge winner for a real-time advertising project, put it: “We don’t sell eyeballs — we sell introductions.” What that suggests is a shift, if a slight one, in the ancient wall dividing editorial and advertising. The Loop, a hyperlocal site in NYC, does sponsored stories — clearly identified as such. Santa Barbara’s EdHat prominently invites readers to advertise on the site, and, via a single button on the homepage, makes it easy for them to do that. And many publishers agree that word-of-mouth is key to success with advertisers. As Baristanet’s Liz George put it, “Your readers are probably your best salespeople.”

Branding matters more than traffic

Advertising is based on relationships. Brand matters more than abstractions like CPM and traffic, publishers agree. While national ad sales rely on CPM, “local advertisers cannot spell CPM,” said GrowthSpur’s Potts. And while metrics like traffic stats “provide a baseline for understanding,” Pegasus News’ Orren noted — proof that you’re generally legit as a news organization — they’re functionally meaningless for advertisers. “There’s actually an inefficiency in the market,” Potts noted. Because they don’t understand CPM — mention it, and “they’ll go running from the room.” West Seattle Blog’s Tracy Record agreed. “Advertisers don’t care about metrics,” she said, “but they do care about your mission.” Convince them of your mission — and your reputation — and, she said, “they’ll buy ads to support you.”

Collaboration will lead to participation

Collaboration isn’t just a way to get more and better content for a site; it’s also a way to inspire engagement among readers. As OJR put it, tweeting a comment from Dave Cohn, “One key to engaging=collaboration w/audience and others says @digidave. Actually attracts others to participate.” And that’s true for the local sites themselves. Several participants expressed the desire to continue the conversations at other conferences, and online. They’ve made it through Phase 1, the creation stage.

But as VTDigger’s Anne Galloway put it during the conference’s wrap-up session, “We need a Phase 2 guidebook.” The publishers want a systematized way to share information and best practices. During the conference, there was a wealth of wisdom in the room; participants agreed in their desire to aggregate that wisdom. “It would be good to have tipsheets,” Galloway said. It would also be good, they agreed, to continue the conversation via further conferences. The Block by Block participants are already planning a meetup at next month’s Online News Association conference, during which they’ll consider more ways to consider the conversation; here’s hoping even more good things will come from that.

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