Landrush for local: NowPublic, Everyblock and now Outside.in

A common joke amongst journalists is that all we need is two examples to proclaim it a trend, but we’ve got much more than that when it comes to rush to build local media empires in the US. In June, AOL bought two local services, Patch, which provides news to small towns and communities, and also Going, which provides a local events listing platform. MSNBC.com bought Adrian Holovaty’s hyperlocal aggregator Everyblock in August. In September, local news network Examiner.com owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz‘s Clarity Media Group bought citizen journalism site NowPublic. Now, we have another major move in hyperlocal with CNN and others investing $7m in aggregator Outside.in. CNN will not only invest in the site, but it will also feature feeds from Outside.in.

Outside.in founder Steven Berlin Johnson called the investment and content deal:

a vote of confidence in the platform we’ve built at outside.in, but perhaps more important it’s an endorsement of hyperlocal and the ecosystem model of news that many of us have been championing for years now.

Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist and the principal of Union Square Ventures, is an investor in Outside.in, and he makes the passionate case for people covering their own communities.

My unwavering belief is that we will cover ourselves when it comes to local news. We are at the PTA meetings, the little league games, and the rallies to save our local institutions, so who better to cover them than us? This is what hyperlocal blogging is all about and it is slowly but surely it is gaining steam.

CNN’s partnership with Outside.in can be seen as a simple response to a competitor, but with all of the deals in this space, I guarantee that 2010 will see additional deals and development. Add to this location based services and mobile, and you’ve got somethig very interesting happening.

The promise of ‘pro-am’

As Fred says, people will cover their own communities, and we have seen some interesting hyperlocal projects including the pro-am projects of MyMissourian in Columbia Missouri and BlufftonToday in South Carolina or hyperlocal projects here in London like William Perrin’s Talk About Local. I personally like pro-am models where professional journalists cover the official life of the community – council meetings, crime, sports, schools and other local issues – while the site provides a platform for the community to cover itself and the full range of lived experience there. As Clyde Bentley, who set up MyMissourian, found out, readers didn’t want to write about politics as much as they wanted to write about religion, pets and the weather. Here are the lessons he learned from MyMissourian:

  • Use citizen journalism to supplement not replace.
  • UGC isn’t free.
  • Online attracts the eager, but print serves the masses.
  • Give people what they want, when they want it and how they want it.
  • Get rid of preconceptions of what journalism is.
  • Every day people are better ‘journalists’ than you think.

Lessons learned from failure and success

Despite all of this energy and experience, hyperlocal has still seen more high profile failures than successes such as Backfence and the Loudoun Extra project by the Washington Post. Even in those failures, there are lessons to be learned. Mark Potts who was behind Backfence said that one frequent mistake of hyperlocal projects is that they aren’t local 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.”

The difficulty for Loudoun Extra was integration with WashingtonPost.com and a lack of community outreach, according to Rob Curley who headed up the project.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t have success stories, but again, the secret to success seems to be a laser light focus on niche topics and keeping the hyper in hyperlocal. Crain’s New York just profiled Manhattan Media, which has seen revenue grow fivefold since 2005 and even more surprising is that ad revenue has continued to grow in the midst of the Great Recession. It’s a multi-platform, multi-revenue stream model with newspapers and websites, and their events business now contributes 20% of their revenue.

The lessons I take away is that newspapers trying to be all things to all people with no sense of place or focus are suffering mightily during the recession. Focus is key both in terms of topic and geography, and seeing as this is about engaging not only a virtual but very real world community, I’ll add my basic advice about blogging and social media: Be passionate and be real.

Whether we see a strong recovery in 2010 or not, local will be one growth area, and journalists looking for new opportunities should watch this space for ‘help wanted’ signs.

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