NYT, Google exec go hyper-local

There’s an interesting battle shaping up in the “hyper-local” online journalism market, at least in the New York and New Jersey area. The New York Times confirmed on Monday that it is launching a new project called The Local, in co-operation with journalism students at the City University of New York. The network of local blog sites will reportedly start with Clinton Hill and Fort Greene in Brooklyn and Maplewood, Millburn and South Orange in New Jersey, and will apparently cover the usual neighbourhood fare such as schools, restaurants, crime and government. After the launch was mentioned by a local blog called Brownstoner (and also by PaidContent), blogger and journalism prof Jeff Jarvis wrote a post describing how he was working on a local-blogging project and happened to run into someone from the NYT, and the two agreed to co-operate on a joint venture. As Jarvis describes it:

In each of these two pilots, they’ll have one journalist reporting but also working with the community in new ways. The Times’ goal, like ours, is to create a scalable platform (not just in terms of technology but in terms of support) to help communities organize their own news and knowledge. The Times needs this to be scalable; it can’t afford to – no metro paper can or has ever been able to afford to – pay for staff in every neighborhood.

A spirited battle subsequently broke out in the comments section of Jarvis’s post, and on Twitter, between the blogger and Howard Owens — the former head of digital media for GateHouse Media (which recently settled a contentious lawsuit with the New York Times over one of the “hyper-local” sites run by Boston.com). Owens said he was skeptical of the plan, in part because of the failure of previous local journalism networks such as Backfence and YourHub, and made the point that local staff need to be in each community. Jarvis and Owens then got into a debate over (I think) whether the staff working for such a hyper-local site should be primarily professional journalists or people who emerge from the community itself.

(read the rest of this post at the Nieman Journalism Lab blog)

The gorilla moves into local news

For lots of people I know (including me, I have to admit) Google News has effectively become their online newspaper. I don’t know where it stacks up in terms of news portals, and whether Yahoo News or MSN have bigger market share, but for many the day starts with a browse through Google’s version of the newspaper — and now that paper will include local news as well as world news. Can the 800-pound gorilla make local work? And does that help or hurt newspaper sites?

The first thing I wondered was whether Google was just looking at the placeline and/or the source for its stories, since the section in my version of the new Google News showed that the five stories were all from the Toronto Star. Was that paper being ranked higher just because it has the word Toronto in its name? Not according to the Google blog.

We’re not simply looking at the byline or the source, but instead we analyze every word in every story to understand what location the news is about and where the source is located.

As always with Google, the algorithm is king. And the local section on my page did a pretty remarkable job of pulling together news from most of the local outlets, including radio-station websites such as 680News, as well as newspapers like the Star and the Globe — although it did pick up stories from as far away as Kingston and Montreal, so it’s not foolproof. But it’s still as good or better than many of the other news aggregators I’ve tried, including Yahoo (which used to be my start page).

Update: Topix founder Rich Skrenta has a response to Google’s launch that is worth reading, and there’s a post on the Topix blog that also looks at the impact of Google moving into the company’s local search space. The point of the post seems to be that “local news is not a search problem.”

I may be somewhat biased toward the “Web is friend, not foe” argument as far as newspapers are concerned, but I think this helps newspaper websites rather than hurts them. I know that there will be the inevitable arguments, like the ones the World Newspaper Association and others keep trotting out, that Google is “stealing” eyeballs and readers who just want a quick summary of the news, but I think that continues to miss the point.

In a nutshell, if a quick summary or the first paragraph of your story captures all that you have to offer, then you don’t deserve to have those readers in the first place. Write well, add value and readers will continue to come to you — and now even more may wind up coming, as a result of features like Google’s localized news. (Update: Greg Sterling has some market share numbers for Google News at Screenwerk).

EveryBlock redefines the local news

Adrian Holovaty — the guy behind the ChicagoCrime-Google Maps mashup, and now the launch of EveryBlock — is a smart guy. And not just when it comes to things like coding, but in the way he thinks about media. When we think of journalism and the “news” business, we often just think about the obvious things, like the plane crashes or the Iraq war, but in your neighbourhood there’s a whole lot more than that you might consider “news,” or at least, information worth knowing. It could be a street closure, a crime wave, a local bylaw change, and dozens of other things.

Good local newspapers cover all of those things and more — but the information isn’t always easy to find. EveryBlock.com is an attempt to use the kind of aggregation and smart filtering that a search engine like Google provides, but on a smaller scale. So far, the service is still in its infancy, but the more data Adrian and his team can bring into the mix — including newspaper stories and blog posts — the more value there will be. I think it’s a great effort, as is another local service called Outside.in, and I wish we had something like it here in the Great White North.

Update:

Fred Wilson, an investor in Outside.in, says in a comment below that bringing the service to Canada is a top priority — which I’m glad to hear. And speaking of comments, it’s worth reading the TechCrunch piece on EveryBlock if only because of the comments that Adrian Holovaty contributes in response to the concerns from several readers.

Update 2:

I think it’s worth noting that Rod Edwards tried to do something very similar to EveryBlock with a site called Blockrocker.com, and didn’t have much luck actually turning it into a business. Why? As he says in his post at Techfold, people’s interests aren’t always aligned with their specific geographic location — although we often assume that they must be. That’s a good point. One of the benefits of the Web is that it makes your actual physical location almost irrelevant.

K. Paul Mallasch on local journalism

After my recent posts on hyper-local journalism as well as NowPublic and the failure of Backfence, I got some comments from K. Paul Mallasch, a former Gannett journalist who runs a small, local “citizen journalism” or “networked journalism” site called MuncieFreePress.com in Muncie, Indiana. We exchanged emails about the failure of Backfence and about the right way to do local media, and I thought it was worthwhile excerpting some of his comments here (which he graciously agreed to let me do).

When it comes to local journalism and media sites, he says, there are two camps. One is:

“Those (like BackFence, NowPublic, etc.) who are trying to use the ‘big media’ (big business) approach to this problem – throw a lot of money at the problem, buy other properties, expand at a terrific rate, etc.”

K. Paul says that his site and some others that have had some success, such as Baristanet, are a very different kind of model — a more grassroots, ground-up model that lets the community determine what a site will be about:

“Me, H20town, Baristanet, iBattleboro, and others fall into the other camp, I think. We don’t really have a business plan per se. I joked a while back that I follow the Craig Newmark school of business customer service, customer service, customer service.”

Mallasch also says that he thinks print — perhaps counter-intuitively — is one additional tactic that hyper-local sites can use to nab audiences:

“One of my short term goals to increase cash flow is to start-up a print component (free, weekly tabloid reverse-reverse published from website content.) There’s another 5 to 10 years worth of (big) revenue in print … at least.”

“One of the things that stands out about BackFence is that they vehemently insisted they were an ‘online only’ product [but] print will bring much needed revenue as well as serve as a marketing vehicle for MuncieFreePress.com.”

K. Paul also says that he wants to raise money from the site, but primarily to compensate his contributors:

“As a case in point, over the weekend, I received a batch of photos from a volunteer firefighter in one of the communities I cover… Anyway, he’s volunteered to ‘take assignments’ and is supplying me with a lot of great content.

And he’s just one. I want to pay him (and the others) for their efforts. (If NowPublic were smart, this would be number one on their plate – it would take them way ahead of others out here…)”

Mallasch also says that while “a corporate approach will probably be one of the first to ‘succeed’ on paper (and get mentioned in big media), people like me and the hundreds of others who are taking the grassroots approach will still be around, I think.”

Thanks for your thoughts, K. Paul — much food for thought in there.

A "citizen journalism" trifecta of failure

Through some bizarre confluence of events, we have not one but two restrospectives on two separate citizen journalism or “crowdsourced” media projects today — Backfence, which recently announced it was shutting down, and Assignment Zero, which was the joint venture between Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment.net and Wired magazine, run by my mesh friend Jeff Howe — as well as an overview of the whole citizen journalism concept by Dan Gillmor of the Center for Citizen Media, whose own local journalism project, Bayosphere, failed and was absorbed by Backfence.

Dan’s overview, in a nutshell, is that citizen journalism has come a long way but has much further to go:

“There’s a growing recognition and appreciation of why citizen journalism matters. Investments, from media organizations and others, are fueling experiments of various kinds. Revenue models are taking early shape. And, most important, there’s a flood of great ideas.

But we have a long, long way to go. We need much more experimentation in journalism and community information projects. The business models are, at best, uncertain — and some notable failures are discouraging.”

After much talk about the failure of Backfence, former CEO Mark Potts finally takes a long look at what happened and tries to draw some lessons, including the need to:

“Engage the community. This may be the single most critical element. It’s not about technology, it’s not about journalism, it’s not about whizbang Web 2.0 features. It’s about bringing community members together.”

Potts also talks about the need to trust the community, and to treat the entire affair like a conversation, instead of trying to impose external controls on it. And Jeff Howe has both a Wired piece and his own blog post on the end of Assignment Zero, which he describes as “a highly satisfying failure.”

“Although Assignment Zero produced a strong body of work, consisting of seven original essays and some 80 Q&As, the real value of the exercise was discovery. We learned a lot about how crowds come together, and what’s required to organize them well. But many of the lessons came too late to help Assignment Zero.

In the 12 weeks the project was open to the public, it suffered from haphazard planning, technological glitches and a general sense of confusion among participants. Crucial staff members were either forced out or resigned in mid-stream, and its ambitious goal… had to be dramatically curtailed.”

Well worth reading, all of them. If failure is educational, then we are all learning a lot. And as Eric mentions in the comments, the Washington Post has also just launched a new “hyper-local” journalism experiment called LoudounExtra.com.

Update:

For more on Assignment Zero and the lessons learned, be sure to check out this post from Tish Grier, who acted as the project’s deputy director of participation and has some worthwhile thoughts. David Cohn, who was a key participant, also has a post on the project.