If hyperlocal is the future of news, as we keep hearing almost daily, what can we learn from sites that have gone belly up? Mark Potts, who founded one of the original hyperlocal sites, BackFence, shared his top lessons for keeping a site afloat at a workshop for international journalists in Washington, DC, last week.
For starters, Potts says, too many so-called hyperlocal sites aren’t hyperlocal enough. He believes the key is to focus on a community of around 50,000 people. Covering a bigger area makes it harder to keep people interested. “You care less the farther it gets from home,” says Potts. By that logic, a site like West Seattle Blog would seem to have a better chance of success than a whole city site like MinnPost.
But size isn’t the only important factor, Potts says. Demographics matter too. The ideal community for a hyperlocal news site would include lots of school-aged kids, homeowners, well-established community groups and a local political system. “No one cares about county government,” he says.
The community should have a commercial center with enough local businesses–4,000 or so– that can be enticed to advertise on the site. Potts cites a rule of thumb that 85% of shopping is done within five miles of home, and only 2% of local businesses advertise in the newspaper. Florists, barber shops, nail salons and the like may be willing to spend $100 to $200 a month for an ad on the site. Get enough of them, and you’re breaking even–as long as you keep the cost of producing ads as low as possible. “Set a template and don’t argue about colors or fonts,” Potts advises. The minute you do that, you’re losing money.
Marketing–not something that comes naturally to journalists–is also critical to success. “You can’t just build it and think they will come,” Potts warns. He recommends getting the word out using every possible means, from door hangers to a table outside the local supermarket. And be patient. It takes a year to 18 months for a site to really get going.
There’s much more advice on Potts’ blog, but here’s one additional suggestion that struck me as counter-intuitive for most journalists. Let the community do the work, Potts advises. Aggregate local bloggers, invite contributions and mix professional and amateur content carefully. Don’t dominate the discussion. “If you get too professional about it, people will stay away.”
As newsroom jobs disappear and journalists look for new ways to make a living, it might be tempting to think that all it takes to launch a hyperlocal news site is journalistic chops and desire.
The message from Potts? Think again. You probably can’t do it all on your own–you’ll need someone to handle the advertising side. And you’ll need to resist some journalistic instincts. For example, Potts says there’s no need to “get the other side” in every post. The community will find other views and add them in comments, he says. That’s a scary idea for many journalists and well worth pondering before leaping into the hyperlocal unknown.