Hyper-local journalism, what we do, and why everyone else is doing it, too

For the last 20 years, as long as we have done the Advocate, people in the journalism business have made fun of us. Literally. We were a rinky dink operation covering rinky dink things, and we weren’t nearly as cool and as hip as the daily newspaper people. One of our readers, who is a big deal, nationally known media big shot, once described us as that nice little magazine he gets on his door every month.

My, how the world has changed. I was talking to a daily newspaper columnist the other day, and he brought up the Advocate. My hackles raised. But, in fact, he had nice things to say about us. “I wish,” he said, “that everyone else in the business could do what you do as well as you do it. You’re the model they should be following.”

The model he is talking about is for something called hyper-local journalism, and it’s the media buzzword these days. The Mainstream Media, desperate to find a way to reverse its revenue slide, has decided to cover all those rinky dinky things it used to make fun of us for covering. Two decades ago, this month’s Live Local cover story would have been the butt of jokes. Today, there have probably been meetings at various news organizations around town about adapting it for their own purposes.

I don’t write this to say I told you so or toot our horn (our readers and visitors do that for us). Rather, hyper-local is an important trend in the journalism business, and you should know why it’s happening and what it means – which comes after the jump.

In the five neighborhoods where we publish magazines, there may be a couple of dozen hyper-local weekly newspapers, Web sites, and blogs. This doesn’t include the increased emphasis on news from the big boys – Dallas’ Only Daily Newspaper and the area’s TV stations. Three years ago, on the other hand, we were more or less the only ones doing this.

In one respect, hyper-local is nothing new. It’s the same, old-fashioned community journalism we’ve been doing since 1991, and that thousands of small town daily and suburban weekly newspapers have been doing for decades. Wamre knew about it growing in rural Minnesota, and I knew about it growing up in the Chicago suburbs. It was school news and town council meetings and cheerleader pictures and business openings.

What is new is the respect – or at least the lip service – that the Mainstream Media is paying hyper-local. They never considered it worthy of their time and effort, and their reporters always thought it was beneath them. That this was stuff that people wanted to read about was irrelevant; they were the Big Boys and they knew best. Not coincidentally, the trend in the newspaper business over the past couple of decades has been regionalism, where big city newspapers expand their circulation area to cover not just their immediate metro area, but the outlying regions as well. This made hyper-local almost impossible to do, even if they wanted to. How does a newspaper in Dallas cover a community 90 minutes away?

The recession and its loss of advertising, which devastated the media business, changed all this. It became too expensive to cover a region, so the Mainstream Media cut back and covered only its immediate area. And, like the Lord and the earth on the first day, hyper-local was born. I can’t tell you how many faux-intellectual discussions I’ve had to endure, listening to editors, consultants and their ilk explain their genius in adapting this concept to the digital age. That they should have been doing it all along always seems to escape them.

Meanwhile, a whole bunch of people not in the Mainstream Media were reading the stuff that the editors and consultants and their ilk were writing, and figured they could make a fortune doing hyper-local on the Internet. This led to an explosion of neighborhood-oriented blogs and Web sites here and throughout the country. And there is a certain logic to this. First, the costs to entry for a digital operation are low, since a Web site and server cost much less than a printing press and a circulation department. And second, you don’t need a huge staff — a handful of employees vs. hundreds for a Mainstream Media operation.

The catch, of course, is that cyber news operations face the same revenue problem that the Mainstream Media faces. It’s not enough to assume that no one reads newspapers and that, the Lord working His wonders again, people will read you and the revenue will follow. You either have to sell advertising, which almost no one has been able to do in an Internet news operation, or invent a new revenue model. How pathetic is the Internet ad model? My wine blog, which is well respected and gets decent visitor numbers, will make about $200 from ads this year. And that’s with legitimate, national brand ads, not the silly, Google-driven classifieds you see so many places.

The other problem? Content. We’re a professional news organization with top-notch, quality reporters, and it’s not always easy for us to keep up. And if we have difficulty – and we’ve been doing this for 20 years – how does someone new to the business do it with a revenue structure that depends on volunteer bloggers and reporters? I don’t envy them the challenge.

The winner in all of this, of course, is the neighborhood, which may have dozens of news organizations clamoring for its information. Which is a good thing, because neighborhoods are important. That’s something we have believed in for 20 years. But enjoy this while you can. There’s no guarantee how long it will last.


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