A Brief History of Hyperlocal News

everyblock.com crime map

The term "Hyperlocal" generally refers to community-oriented news content typically not found in mainstream media outlets and covering a geographic region too small for a print or broadcast market to address profitably. The information is often produced or aggregated by online, non-traditional (amateur) sources.

Hyperlocal news is conceptually attractive because of its perceived potential to rescue struggling traditional media organizations. Most attempts at hyperlocal news websites have not proven to be entirely successful. Hyperlocal appears attractive to traditional media organizations for the following reasons:

  1. There is a perceived demand for news at the neighborhood/community level. The costs of print production and distribution have historically made providing this unprofitable, but the lower cost of web distribution could be used to serve this need.
  2. In an online world, regional media outlets are no longer the gatekeeper of news content and therefore must rely on their geographic relevance to provide unique value. Hyperlocal news leverages geographic relevance.
  3. The rise of citizen journalism and Web 2.0 seems to suggest that users could provide the majority of local content, thereby reducing or eliminating staffing costs.
  4. Local online advertising seems like a promising and not yet fully tapped revenue source.

History & Approaches
Hyperlocal seems to have emerged as a popular concept in 2005, even while regional news websites and blogs were already becoming common1. In 2006-2007, the first significantly funded hyperlocal sites and platforms were launched. There were high-profile failures, most notably Backfence.com (2007) and LoudounExtra.com (from Washington Post in 2008). Many early efforts took the form of online newspaper websites, employing local reporters (or sometimes bloggers), and attempting to source user-generated content by inviting individual submissions or incorporating user discussion functionality. There was much speculation on why this approach often failed. Regardless of the specifics, their universal unprofitability suggests that producing a local newspaper-like presence simply doesn’t create enough demand (online readership) to justify the costs (local staff). Of note are a few surviving examples like the Chicago Tribune’s Triblocal project that create and distribute hyperlocal print editions from their online content, and many hyperlocal blogs which operate on less auspicious budgets.

Around the same time, a slightly more promising wave of information-heavy regional news sites (such as pegasusnews.com) emerged. These sites were inspired by the success of regional review sites such as yelp.com and Yahoo! Local and in response to the high costs of local content production. These new efforts focused on incorporating dynamic regional data, such as crime stats, permit applications, real estate listings, and business directories in lieu of an emphasis on hand-crafted local reporting.

A third and perhaps most promising wave of local news sites emphasized the aggregation of third-party content. These include platforms such as outside.in, topix.com, and everyblock.com – all of which are framework approaches - aggregating content, mostly through RSS feeds, for many geographic locations (in some cases thousands) in order to build enough accumulated traffic to make a local business model work. Some slightly different takes on this model have individuals in specific locations acting as editors and republishing aggregated content (universalhub.com) or aggregator sites focusing on particular types of content (Placeblogger.com).

Lessons Learned
You can’t serve online users the same way as newspapers or broadcasters serve regional audiences. The news and information demands are wildly different. It is not enough to reduce printing and distribution costs or put content into "bite-sized" pieces. The user-consumer is trying to solve radically different problems from a unique perspective around their online information needs.

Giving participatory tools to users does not make them publishers. Users do not produce material that looks anything like mass media content. Users have an expectation of being involved, and their efforts (such as sharing) can be helpful or even necessary in some contexts. However, assumptions about traditional publishers shifting effort "to the crowd" are misguided. Users are also notoriously fickle in their socially-driven motivations. Our understanding around what motivates people to participate online and in what context is limited.

Manually producing local content is expensive. This isn’t a surprise. What shocked people is that there is not enough consumer demand online to justify this cost.

Aggregation is cheap, and if done effectively can create enough demand to be profitable – particularly across many locations. As more sources make their content available through RSS feeds and APIs, this is only going to get better.

1To be clear, the hyperlocal hype from traditional media organizations took fire in 2005, but local sites like Craigslist and H20Town were long-standing successes by this point, thereby playing their part in fueling the excitement.