What is this supposed to MEAN? That the Times could buy Gothamist if it really wanted to? That the Times has surrendered to the fact that they can’t fix their Metro or hyperlocal reporting?
I had the pleasure of talking to Dave Winer this afternoon about the hyperlocal space and the work the Times is doing with his students at NYU to produce a niche blog for the East Village. On his own blog, he questions where the money will come from to support these efforts. Big institutions seem to think there’s some mysterious code to crack with the production and business model of hyperlocal, when in fact there is an institution that had been doing it well for decades and only recently started to stumble when they couldn’t keep up with online: the alternative weekly (I cut my teeth at one such publication, The L Magazine).
What can the Times et. al. learn from the alt weekly model as they dive into hyperlocal blogging?
1. Organize: Most alt weeklies would not have survived as long as they did without the aid of networks like the AWN (Alternative Weekly network) and AAN (Association of Alternative Newsweeklies), who sell national ads on behalf of each market. The Times should assume this position themselves and become the mothership for a network of independent local blogs—they already have the sales staff in place to support this. The blogs themselves would, as alt weeklies do, supplement this with sales to local businesses. This sales model probably isn’t sustainable forever, but innovators like Foursquare are proving that national brands indeed want to be a part of the local market.
2. Never use New York City as a model for the rest of the country: New York is an abnormal market simply because there is more going on here per square mile. An early project of mine at The L was to work on a site that would aggregate listings from alt weeklies across the country and uniformly organize them. We built the site with our listings for NYC in mind, with super-specific ways of breaking down the city’s geography and the categories of events and venues. Of course, we never took into account that in smaller markets, organization would be far broader. And so, we had a site that looked effectively empty because nobody else had as many listings as we did per insanely narrow category (“Psychedelic Jazz,” anyone?).
If we apply this to blogs, we can definitively say that “hyperlocal” just doesn’t mean the same thing in New York as it does in another market. It’s why three high-circulation alt weeklies (The L, The Village Voice and The NY Press) are able to coexist in one city—because they speak to different segments of it. Here, “hyperlocal” means neighborhoods, sometimes even fractions of neighborhoods. But most single neighborhoods in Boston will never provide the same amount of blog fodder as the East Village because they don’t have the same volume & variety of activity within them. For such a market, it’s likely that a collection of neighborhoods will have more value to the audience. And in an even smaller market (say, my hometown of Northampton, MA) blogs would have more value if we expanded the definition of “hyperlocal” to include neighboring towns as well. In fact, the alt weekly currently serving Northampton does just that: the Valley Advocate reports on the entire Pioneer Valley.
On a related note, I’m really excited to see the new Foursquare statistics when they come out, because I think it will shed a lot of light on how much narrower, geographically speaking, a New Yorker’s view of their own city is in comparison to residents of other cities.
3. Don’t create something that already exists: Why are so few alt weeklies real contenders in the hyperlocal blog space? Because they just don’t have the resources to do print and online well, simultaneously, and most decide to keep the labor and money they do have in print because it’s what they’re comfortable with. So, New York Times, see those free papers shutting down and going bankrupt all around you? They’ve left behind a trail of top-notch hyperlocal reporters who never got to prove their worth on the interwebs. Do one of two things: buy the weeklies (they’re cheap) and force them to go online-only OR wait for them to die off (they will) and recruit their casualties to start their own blogs, which they would run independently under the ad sales model proposed in point #1.