In place of being comprehensive news sources, sites are forming as fusions of news and schmooze.
Hyperlocal citizen sites are diverse in every way. Some sites edit all the content that goes up, at least on the front page; some don’t touch content, except to remove offending posts. Some break news; others reprint news releases. Some struggle to get enough volunteer contributors, others are awash in content and struggling to manage it. Some are finding innovative ways to generate income to support their operations, while others are not sure where they’ll get their next dime.
At many sites founders are riding a wave of start-up energy, but, particularly at sites run entirely by volunteers, they face a critical challenge of sustaining their labor or finding sufficient fresh replacement troops. Founders such as Christopher Grotke and Lise LePage take a very long view; they’re operating on a ten-years-to-profitability plan, hoping eventually to drop their web design business to run ibrattleboro full time.
Almost no sites are setting themselves up to be comprehensive substitutes for a full-blown local newspaper. Few have the resources. To date, the companies that seem to have created replicable profit-making models are mostly legacy newspapers. Nevertheless, some promising alternative revenue models are emerging.
In place of being comprehensive news sources, sites are forming as fusions of news and schmooze, where the most dedicated posters can steer intense focus to one or two issues at a time, and where people with common interests connect.
People who run in separate circles in their everyday lives and might seem natural antagonists - political and ideological opposites, gentrifiers and veteran homeowners - talk to each other on hyperlocal sites.
“The more I focus on the news aspect, the more I think news items are really just an excuse to have a conversation.” said Lisa Williams, a new media consultant who launched the Watertown, Massachusetts, community site H2otown.info and more recently Placeblogger.com.
One surprising development, Williams and others said, is that people who run in separate circles in their everyday lives and might seem natural antagonists - political and ideological opposites, gentrifiers and veteran homeowners - talk to each other on hyperlocal sites. The great majority of site operators say that nasty conversational behavior, even among these opposites, is rare.
But first, citizens must show up. Building traffic continues to be a struggle, particularly at sites where there are few or no paid staffers to do shoe-leather marketing, or where site operators have yet to hit on successful traffic-generating strategies. Many sites are bursting with the passion and energy of their contributors, but the circle of conversation is exceedingly small compared to the population of their towns. Lisa Williams, who has analyzed the penetration of hyperlocal sites, said the successful sites claim one out of ten residents as registered or frequent users.
“I think you’re going to see four or five [hyperlocal] sites per city in a few years and none will be permanent. ... I think what will be long-term is the phenomenon” of citizen journalism.
Other sites go fallow for days without new posts, or depend on P.R. professionals or local groups such as the library story-time hosts to post news releases. But citizens are quick to claim ownership of sites that connect, noted Mary Lou Fulton, The Bakersfield Californian newspaper executive behind the launch of Northwest Voice. In the summer of 2006, she described what happened when an ad with a picture of a woman in a low-cut blouse ran in the back of the print weekly that is built around citizen contributions reverse-published from the Northwest Voice web site.
“You wouldn’t believe the outraged phone calls. Northwest Voice was a community newspaper, family-oriented, they were shocked and dismayed at our judgment,” said Fulton, vice president of audience development. “Wow. This publication is not even two years old and you’ve got people who take it so seriously that they are offended by one advertisement on page 24. They did not want it to get off track. It was a watershed moment for the Northwest Voice way.”
“We in newspapers and media have been great at telling people, ‘No, we’re not going to put your stuff in the paper.’ We’ve trained generations of people to be consumers of news,” said Kevin Kaufman, managing editor of The Daily Camera and MyTown.DailyCamera.com in Boulder, Colorado. “All of a sudden we want people to be participants in news. Some people are enthusiastic but a lot of people are skeptical or nervous or unsure. We’re really embarking on a shift on what is news, what’s important to people and what’s their role in the process.”
Hyperlocal citizen sites rest on this shifting ground. The question is whether they are fads, short-lived efforts that may bloom and fade like some blogs, or fundamental realignments of local news delivery.
We believe that citizen media sites will be a sustainable part of the local news universe, but not all individual sites may be sustainable. Rather, ongoing efforts will likely emerge in serial fashion, with fresh sites coming online to replace those that collapse as their founders burn out.
“I think you’re going to see four or five [hyperlocal] sites per city in a few years and none will be permanent. We’ll never be big operations,” predicted Paul Bass, a journalist who founded NewHavenIndependent.org in Connecticut. “I think what will be long-term is the phenomenon” of citizen journalism.
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