The buzz around hyperlocal news is on the rise, but at the same time there are also an increasing number of failed hyperlocal experiments. The latest hyperlocal news publisher to fold is InJersey, a portal of news sites owned by Gannett. InJersey has dedicated sites for 17 towns in New Jersey.
Poynter discussed the fate of InJersey and the factors that contributed to the portal's closure. Many hyperlocals face similar challenges, and Poynter's examination is an instructive look into what kind of steps they should take in dealing with them. A round of layoffs that Gannett announced last week was a major blow, but that accelerated the process rather than singlehandedly causing it.
One issue that InJersey suffered from was inadequate staffing. In several cases, one editor maintained multiple towns. Moreover, the editors had to split their time between the site and the local Gannett paper, and often the work for the newspaper took precedence. According to Ted Mann, the founder of InJersey, the staffers didn't live in the towns they covered, which made it harder for them to get the feel of the communities and of the happenings in them.
Furthermore, the sites lacked their own advertising staffs. The sales staffs of Gannett's papers were in charge of selling advertising for the sites, but this practice wasn't as successful as had been hoped.
In terms of reader participation, the shortcomings were perhaps most notable. When InJersey started, Mann's goal was to have 50 percent of the content come from community members. None of the sites met this goal, even though posting on them was made as easy as possible. InJersey also organised workshops in the hope that more people would take up contributing, but these workshops didn't succeed in activating enough people. "I don't have a good explanation as to why it was so hard. I guess it's that the will to contribute wasn't quite there," said Mann.
Hyperlocal efforts have struggled to take off generally. The Guardian, for example, closed its local experiment earlier this year as unsustainable. There have also been suspicions about whether Patch will be able to become profitable, despite AOL's substantial investment, as reported by Business Insider. Patch has, however, succeeded in increasing its traffic considerably, as reported by Forbes's Jeff Bercovici.
Poynter went on to say that examining InJersey's shortcomings uncovers valuable lessons for hyperlocals. What hyperlocal news needs are full-time staffers who have an organic connection with the community they report from. Moreover, it is essential that local advertisers understand the value the sites can have in the neighbourhoods. Often this value cannot be measured in page views, despite the common impulse - for a hyperlocal news site, it is more important to be able to generate conversation in the community than to attract a lot of page views.
As regards readers' contributions, it is important to understand what motivates people to participate. This was also the message of Philip Trippenbach, editor-in-chief of Citizenside, who spoke last week at WAN-IFRA's Summer University in Paris. According to him, Citizenside counts on its users to form a community and participate in the creation of the site's content. He noted that motivation is a vital aspect of the picture, and Citizenside is addressing the issue by stimulating interaction through several different measures. Users also need feedback for their work to keep contributing, he said.
After all the talk about the challenges hyperlocals are tackling, and little apparent progress in solving them, it is high time for some positive news in the hyperlocal field.