How to Become the ‘King’ of Hyper-Local News

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By: Steve Outing

The printed newspaper is a world unto itself. Version 1.0 of the newspaper website: ditto. Today’s newspaper websites (what are we at now, version 2.0? 3.0?) are less provincial, but most still don’t do a great job of reaching out to tap the larger information stream that is the web.

That is, you don’t typically go to a newspaper website because you expect it to point you to all that is good and relevant to you on the web. That’s what Google is for, eh? … Of course, Google isn’t great at local. Sure, with the search engines you can find good local information, but it’s not yet a wonderful experience trying to find fine-grain local information and news from a wide variety of sources — especially at the neighborhood level.

There is still an opportunity for someone to do a truly good job and become the king of hyper-local news and information. You would think that the obvious candidate for this would be the newspaper industry. But I suspect that newspapers’ lingering provincialism — their reticence to link to or bring in content that is completely out of their control — will allow Internet entrepreneurs to own this space.


Is this where it’s headed?

Lately, I’ve been watching Outside.in, a New York-based, venture capital-backed, new player in the hyper-local news and information space. Who knows whether Outside.in will turn into the Next Great Internet Thing, or eventually join the large ranks of Internet companies in the sky. But I do think they’re on to something important — and newspaper executives should be paying attention.

In a nutshell, Outside.in seeks to bring together and finely categorize news and information from all sorts of sources online, down to the neighborhood level. It’s seeking to become the place you’ll go to zero in on your neighborhood and find everything that’s being written or produced about it — as well as recruit original content about your neighborhood in a social networking experiment.

The website was created in part in reaction to the “placeblogging” trend. Placebloggers, of course, are usually individuals who write blogs about a specific geographic location. There are now thousands of people blogging about their communities — covering large metro areas, or neighborhoods within cities, or small towns, or military bases, or boarding schools, etc.

Most of the placebloggers operate independently, perhaps writing a placeblog out of nothing more than love for and passion about their communities. Some have figured out how to turn them into small businesses by attracting advertisers. Some newspapers have staff members writing placeblogs, while others may pay independent placebloggers to produce content for them or otherwise partner with them.

But placebloggers are just part of the wealth of hyperlocal content that Outside.in is tapping. There are also community groups, government agencies, schools, and numerous institutions publishing content that’s relevant to a place. Aggregate all that into a useful interface, and you start to have an interesting and useful news and information service — albeit a disorganized, and ultimately unedited, one.


An unmet need

Outside.in founder Steven Johnson (an Internet pioneer known for starting the ’90s online magazine FEED and for the website Plastic.com) says he and his team recognized that there was no place online that you could go and easily find all that information and news. “We wanted to grab as much of that as possible,” he says. “We said, let’s organize what’s out there already” because no one else is doing a good job of that yet.

The process of categorizing all content that is fresh and locally relevant is something that can be automated to an extent, but it’s still — for now, at least — partly a time-consuming editorial task requiring humans.

For example, Outside.in can identify a placeblogger, pick up his or her content feed (RSS), and because the blogger’s location is known, put that content into a specific place feed (e.g., Boulder, Colorado). But what if a Boulder-based placeblogger writes a review of a restaurant she tried on a trip to Tupelo, Mississippi? That needs to go in the Tupelo area of Outside.in, and for now that requires a human editor to accomplish.

Outside.in currently employees about 10 freelance editors whose job it is to categorize content. If a placeblogger’s item mentions a specific university, for example, an editor might add it to an Outside.in page and feed about that school.

Outside.in’s content is nearly always geo-coded, and the site includes a useful map interface. So you can find your house on a map, then read all the content about your neighborhood: crime reports from blogs or police departments, restaurant reviews from a wide variety of people (and media sources), even local news from newspapers, TV stations, etc.

Johnson says that this ability to drag an online map around and see the news by geographic location (what’s been happening within a mile of my house, my office, my kids’ school?) — from the huge variety of sources available on the Internet — is powerful, and is where traditional media like newspapers “have done a lousy job.”

(Adrian Holovaty’s ChicagoCrime.org is somewhat in the vein of Outside.in — a small slice of this hyperlocal online information pool. That website from a few years ago allows the user to find their block or neighborhood and see recent crime reports, giving a useful and powerful perspective on the crime situation near your home or work. … Holovaty currently is chief technologist for Washington Post/Newsweek Interactive.)

There’s more to Outside.in’s model, and it’s in its early days, so we’ll have to watch as it evolves. But other things to note are:

— The Outside.in community is designed so that users help the categorization process, to relieve editors of having to do everything (an impossibility if the site grows significantly).

— When bloggers tag their own content appropriately (which is becoming increasingly common), it’s easy for Outside.in to categorize it automatically.

— The concept of “citizen media” is integral to Outside.in. Users are invited to submit content to add it to their geographic location, and the idea is that they can converse with and get to know their neighbors through this process. This original citizen content is added to the content gathered from around the web, to make the site rich and deep.

— What in theory is getting built out is a “Wikipedia of neighborhoods.” Just as many, many people contribute to Wikipedia, the online participatory encyclopedia, so too can many people who live in a neighborhood contribute what they know and their news to create a user-driven guide to neighborhoods.


Partnering possibilities

How does Outside.in mesh with newspapers? Is it purely competitive, or “co-opetition,” or benign partner?

Johnson, who’s currently in discussions with some newspaper companies, says one possibility is for newspaper websites to license Outside.in’s feeds for neighborhoods and cities within its coverage area — adding non-staff-produced local content and making the sites much richer. Details aren’t worked out yet, but possibilities include reciprocal traffic — where a newspaper’s neighborhood content is fed into the Outside.in system in exchange for using Outside.in’s neighborhood feeds — as well as more traditional licensing.

I can see that as a possibility, though I wonder if a newspaper staff couldn’t do the same thing itself, by assigning an editor or editors to find and continuously monitor local bloggers and local information sources.

Outside.in is still working on its revenue model details, but local advertising certainly will be key. In that respect, the company is yet another player looking to take local ad dollars away from local newspapers. Johnson expects to develop some sort of advertising share program, so by running Outside.in content and ads on your site, you get a cut. That, of course, is a well-worn model; many publishers participate in Google’s advertising program, for example, and do quite well from that.


Why pay attention to this small company?

Simply put, Outside.in represents an approach to hyper-local news that newspaper companies should be considering. It perhaps points to the future of local news, which is not restricted to those hired or associated with news companies, but includes everyone in a community who is publishing neighborhood- or community-relevant news and information.

Rich Gordon of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, put it well in analyzing Outside.in’s core concept: “In the digital age, content and aggregators and consumers and media users are members of a network. The key to success in a networked information economy will be to build hubs that enable connections. So I like Outside.in’s concept.” Of course, for that particular company, “The devil will be in the details — how well they execute,” he adds.

As an example of the potential value of this model, my hometown newspaper seldom has news about the elementary school that my youngest daughter goes to. But a hyper-local, non-provincial approach would mean that the newspaper website taps everyone outside of its staff and freelancers who are writing anything about the school — teachers’ or principals’ blogs, the school district website, even parents of students who blog and happen to mention something going on at the school. It leverages the networked information infrastructure that has evolved over the last decade-plus.

Now that would be a really useful service that would truly tap the potential of online hyper-local news.

So, will entrepreneurs like Steven Johnson be the ones to accomplish this? Or will newspapers take the bold step of truly loosening the reins of editorial control and step up to the challenge?

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