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Hyperlocal journalism burst on to the journalism scene in 2005, promising to jumpstart an industry suffering from inertia. As technology disrupted the traditional news industry and ad revenue dwindled large publishers were optimistic about the new opportunity. Hyperlocal journalism focused on concentrated, geographic areas, too small for general interest newspapers. Hyperlocal journalism proponents like the Washington Post believed the projects would succeed by selling targeted local advertising online. For small businesses, hyperlocal sites could provide the targeted advertising opportunities that big papers couldn't.
Enthusiasm for hyperlocal ventures was contagious. Backfence.com and Patch media were two early projects that attracted massive investments. Between 2007 and 2011 AOL invested $120 million in Patch and the number of editors nationwide grew to 800. In 2009, the New York Times entered the fray, launching The Local of Fort Greene/Clinton Hill in partnership with the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and The Local East Village with the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.
Very quickly, however, fissures began to form. Just as fast as hyperlocal journalism rose to prominence, by 2012 most projects were struggling to stay above the surface. On June 26, the New York Times announced the end of partnerships with NYU and CUNY. From the beginning, the Times acknowledged that the ventures were “experimental,” but as new, digital projects emerged, the hyperlocals lost priority. As Times managing editor Jim Schacter told Neiman Lab, producing high-quality hyperlocal content is expensive. “Large media organizations cannot afford to cover large geographic areas in a hyperlocal way using exclusively paid staff,” he said.
Attracting the traffic to make the business model work was difficult. Although Patch.com's unique traffic has grown substantially since February, 7.5 million unique visitors couldn’t compete with other AOL brands. The Huffington Post, for example, logged 31.4 million unique visitors in May. In efforts to increase traffic, some hyperlocal sites have increased the demands for their writers. Rick Ellis, a former Patch.com editor, wrote on JimRomensko.com, "I don't know if seven is an accurate number or not. But when I was an editor, we were expected to post five stories a day M-F and at least 2 -3 per day on weekends and holidays. But I also had a freelance budget that allowed me to cover high school sports and that filled a lot of holes." Most notably, however, the locally-targeted ad sales flopped.
As Steve Johnson, president of Clear Digital Media Inc., pointed out June 2, selling hyperlocal ad space requires placing salespeople who understand, and are part of, the local community. Efforts like Patch.com failed to implement this strategy.
The failure of hyperlocals underscores the changing definition of “local” in the digital age. Once upon a time, communities were defined by language and geography. No longer do geographic borders clearly delineate communities, nor do communities identify with one specific geographic location. Considering the evolving channels of communication and demographic landscape, reasons for failing hyperlocals seem almost too obvious.
Despite the popularity of Meetup groups, people no longer require proximity to connect. With the web as a proxy, hyperlocal is being replaced by hyperinterest.
Today, many newspapers are pursuing hyperinterest journalism. The New York Daily News’ Desi section, for example, features curated content focused on South Asian news, events, culture, and entertainment. As the most widely read Indian news source in the United States, the section reaches the wide diaspora of Indians living all over the country. Within three months of its creation, the Desi site grew to be the largest Southeast Asian news section in the country, attracting 1 million page views each month.
The Times seems to be catching on. In September 2011, SchoolBook became a Times hyperinterest venture covering New York City schools. Rather than attracting attention based upon a shared interest in the streets of a city, it provides parents and interested parties with a means to navigate the City's sometimes-labyrinthian education system.
Niche editorial sections like these also solve major revenue problems. With highly specialized content and a more specific segment of readers, advertisers can target consumers based on common experiences and interests rather than simply geographic location. By providing greater opportunities for advertisers, the publications themselves create much greater profit potential.
While some see hyperlocal failures as industry foreshadowing, news innovators aren’t so sure. The niche sections, blogs, and advertising initiatives of hyperinterest journalism might just be the strategy to sustain and propel journalism in the digital era.