Digital Publishing: What Hyperlocal Can Teach Newspapers

By: Rob Tornoe

If it seems like the media has been covering the growth of the hyperlocal news industry for an eternity, that’s because we have.

CapeCodToday, one of the first hyperlocal news websites in the country, will celebrate its 20 year anniversary in February. There are plenty of other sites, such as Baristanet, Oswego County Today and the Gotham Gazette, that have managed to keep the lights on and the news stories flowing for over 10 years.

Unfortunately, the growth in the hyperlocal market has too often been viewed solely through the prism of the failures of legacy media companies. As the logic goes, with shrinking ad revenue comes smaller newsrooms at newspapers, creating openings for competition online.

But what if the rise of hyperlocal journalism has less to do with the failure of the business model for newspapers and more with its failure of imagination? After all, if these new outlets for journalism are showing a sustainable way of keeping the lights on, maybe they’re doing something more than just picking up areas that newspapers have abandoned.

Our Industry Insight columnist Matt DeRienzo knows a great deal about this subject. He was once one of the most innovative editors at Digital First Media, where his nearly 100-person newsroom at the New Haven Register would often get scooped by a small, local nonprofit, The New Haven Independent.

DeRienzo took a buyout back in 2014, and now he’s the executive director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, a nonprofit that focuses on helping hyperlocal news outlets develop a business model that sustains local journalism. So he’s seen things from both sides of the fence, and thinks legacy newsrooms can learn a lot from the content being produced by their scrappy competitors.

“One thing legacy newsrooms continue to do is view themselves as the sole source of information,” DeRienzo said. “If you took all the legacy media reporters in a newsroom and had them closely look in the mirror, how much of what they covered today also covered by other outlets?”

Take for instance crime reporting. Most newspapers still cover crime the same way they always have—short, unengaging briefs that offer little context to the overall story of public safety in a community. Plus, TV news outlets devote significant resources to covering breaking crime news, often allowing them to “beat” traditional news outlets in both speed and details.

“When Charlottesville Tomorrow launched, they made a decision to cover a certain number of things, such as land use, education and public policy,” DeRienzo said. “They don’t cover crime or car accidents at all.”

Paraphrasing digital journalism pioneer Jim Brady (who runs his own hyperlocal in Philadelphia, Billy Penn), why do newsrooms continue to send their reporters to be the sixth person at a press conference? Obviously, that doesn’t mean abandoning crime reporting, but we live in the age of social media and instant news. Maybe it makes more sense for newsrooms to aggregate crime news from other sources while devoting reporting to tracking crime trends, or digging deep on a particularly crime story that resonates more with readers.

Poor content choices don’t end with crime. Take a look at the categories on most newspaper websites and you see the same tired, broad categories we’ve seen in print for years. For instance, could you imagine the content in your “Life” vertical as its own website with a specific audience? If not, it’s probably not worth featuring on your homepage.

Another one of those broad categories many newspapers continue to flounder on is “Health.” That’s not to say it can’t and shouldn’t be a relevant area of coverage to your readers (not to mention a lucrative one), but perhaps newsrooms should look how some hyperlocal websites are covering the health beat for ideas.

“If you stubbornly provide only the health content you produce, you can’t and shouldn’t launch a health vertical,” DeRienzo said, noting that hyperlocal outlets like North Carolina Health News augment their own coverage by aggregating and cherry picking stories.

“Health is a topic of interest to just about everyone in your community,” DeRienzo continued. “If you can connect around a group of interested and engaged, how much more valuable is that for advertisers?”

It may be hard to believe, but sports can also be an area of coverage that’s ripe for reimagination. Longtime Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic became frustrated with his newspaper’s unwillingness to deal with the needs of online readers and its blind focus on doing traditional stories, so he left the paper in July 2014 to start his own local sports website, DKonPittsburghSports.com.

Now, Kovacevic’s website has more than 20,000 subscribers paying on average $20 a year, enough revenue for six full-time reporters, a staff photographer and a small support staff in a saturated market with sports coverage on television, radio and two daily newspapers.

“We’re the antithesis of newspapers, where it is faceless and you’re never supposed to use ‘I’ in a column,” Kovacevic told sports media reporter Ed Sherman. “That doesn’t work anymore…Everything on our site takes a more conversational ‘come-inside-with-us’ tone. We take the subscribers inside the teams. To be honest, I don’t see the newspapers as our competition. They’re not doing it like we’re doing it.”

The problems don’t start and end with content. Many successful hyperlocal outlets, like Voice of San Diego, are able to sustain themselves through donations made by loyal readers who once might have subscribed to the local newspaper.

So, why don’t they feel that same loyalty to what is often the largest local source of journalism?

“Most newspapers today aren’t locally owned, and they don’t trust their rank-and-file workers to speak for the newspaper,” DeRienzo said, noting that large organizations like Gannett and Digital First Media still want to pretend their reporters are faceless robots. Meanwhile, most hyperlocal reporters are working out of coffee shops by necessity, which allows them to offer greater access and accountability to their readers.

DeRienzo tried to bring this level of interaction to the New Haven Register. Before Digital First Media pulled the plug, DeRienzo launched a newsroom cafe that was a combination of a library, coffee shop and newsrooms. Residents were able to watch and participate in budget meetings and interact directly with the staff of the newspaper, which engendered loyalty and helps break down walls that had been build in the community.

“It’s not that difficult,” DeRienzo said. “You want your readers to be loyal? Just let your reporters be human.”

Rob TornoeRob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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Published: October 25, 2016

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