Hyperlocal: More Than News

Back in December I posted a piece up here about what hyper-local is (hyperlocal, hyper-local?). I just reread it and I giggled a couple times, because my perspective on hyperlocal has evolved greatly.

With the recent news about Backfence shutting down, there’s been an awful lot of chatter in the blogosphere about this “hyperlocal” space. The single least common denominator I’m seeing among these many blogs is the characterization of hyperlocal as being about news, with perhaps the exception of Peter Krasilovsky’s recent post.

It seems that while Backfence was the poster child for “hyperlocal” they were perhaps to hyperlocal what O’Douls is to beer. By that what I mean is, hyperlocal is not just about news, or “citizen journalism” – its so much more than that! My pal Mike Orren, at Pegasus News, refuses to be called hyperlocal, instead opting for his own term “pan local” because it’s a hybrid of hyperlocal and regional. I dig that, and I get it. I think Mike is smart enough to know that building a business around truly neighborhood-centric (and therefore hyperlocal) news is essentially what Backfence was, and as many people would seem to agree (based on the recent blog posts I’ve read) it’s also inherently flawed.

In my opinion, hyperlocal news (be it in the form of citizen journalism or some taking on a more editorial and/or traditional-journalism-like form) is only one of the many faces of hyperlocal…

Hyperlocal news:

  1. It can take on the form of citizen journalism, where individuals within that hyper-locality (i.e., Harvard Square vs. Cambridge) are contributing news. Citizen journalism is, in my opinion, oftentimes what people mean when they refer to hyperlocal. Citizen journalism can be virtually anybody and everybody in that hyper-locality contributing content, which is a dangerous thing. This type of “news” is generally not news, but instead it’s rumor reporting. There is no fact-checking, and if there is it’s very biased, and there is no real credibility or legitimacy to what’s being reported. It’s scary stuff. The phrase Citizen journalism itself is, to me anyway, an oxymoron. It’s something that we, at Citysquares, have been adamant about staying away from.
  2. Hyperlocal news can also take on a different form though, one that leads to much more legitimacy and credibility for its readers. This is the real journalistic form, if you will. This is hyperlocal news that is being reported by, well, reporters of a sort. They report the news in fact form, and they check their facts before reporting it to you, typically from a variety of sources. This true, and understated, form of journalism is inherently trustworthy and something you can depend on. It’s not rumor reporting, it’s not opinions. While a hyperlocal news site can certainly have opinion columns and editorials, it’s more than that – it’s good news relevant to your hyper-locality.There are probably hybrid forms of the above two, too.

Hyperlocal Search:

That’s what we do at Citysquares.com. We’re certainly not the biggest and best at it (yet) but that’s our thing. Hyperlocal search is, at it’s core, about finding local businesses. It’s not about doing a search online for “bars in central square ma” and ending up receiving ads or results for, a bar in downtown Boston, or Harvard Square. Ok maybe not the best example. It’s not about doing an online search for “north end barber” and seeing ads or results for SuperCuts in Everett, which is, unfortunately, the way local search typically works. If you do those searches, by clicking the links, you’ll see that there are high ranking results that link to Citysquares.com. And the results on Citysquares.com are pretty darn relevant to, if not exactly, what you’re looking for. Nobody has ever been able to do this, at the neighborhood level, well, at all. Hyperlocal search is exciting, and it’s also more than just business listings, although that’s where the money is and that’s the core of our business model. But hyperlocal search is also about other aspects of one’s hyper-locality. For example, my neighborhood of Davis Square is where I live and mostly play. But I work in the South End. My needs in both communities are different, and so is my role. I’m not necessarily looking for the same things in the South End as I’m looking for in Davis Square – my needs are very different. In fact, I might be more inclined to participate in more community events and activities in Davis Square; much more inclined than in the South End. I might be much more inclined to care about the hyperlocal news of Davis Square, than in the South End. But my life still bleeds into the South End, so I still have needs there. Ultimately, hyperlocal search can mean much more than commerce and consumerism. It can be about the library and its hours and librarians, and the church or synagogue or mosque and its community, the public school and its teachers and students, the local little league team and its players and coaches, the artists of the community, etc. There’s much more to hyperlocal search than commerce and news. That’s where we’d like to come in. That’s what we’re carefully working on as we start to build the new site and platform. Most of this stuff is additive to the business-and-consumer-centric hyperlocal search stuff, which, again, is our core focus.

There is now even geographic social networks. I just read about TOWNKINGS today. This is yet another social network focused around another niche, and it happens to be geography. Citysquares would like to incorporate some social-networking-like elements into our new site. We don’t plan on being a social networking platform but there will most definitely be social elements – there has to be.

So, I’m not sure if I’ve missed other forms of hyperlocal, and if I have I hope you’ll enlighten me! I’m intentionally staying away from craigslist here, because I don’t believe it’s hyperlocal. Craigslist is local, if not regional, but it’s certainly not hyperlocal.

I’m hoping that we can eventually, perhaps today, stop confusing hyperlocal with what Backfence was doing. I hope we can start to use the word hyperlocal (let’s even pretend it’s a real word) as if it encompasses other things. The very nature of the word itself, hyper and local, should imply so much more than …. news?

Let’s agree that hyperlocal is this: all things pertaining your geographic community (i.e., your neighborhood, or as in other parts of the country, your county, but still, your hyper locality), be it news, be it classifieds, be it search, be it social networking. Hyper-local is all things pertaining your hyper-locality.

Backfence, No More. And?

Anyone who’s been watching the “hyper-local” space (more than just hyper-local journalism) has been keenly aware of Backfence. They were probably the first Internet company to raise a significant amount of money and then try and build a business around hyper-local journalism. Many thought it would work, many thought it wouldn’t. The first time I heard of Backfence was in the fall of 2005 from a passerby at a networking event who spoke about it very fondly. He was from the DC area and thought that Citysquares should emulate what they were doing, otherwise he thought we ought to watch out! Well, here we are nearly 2 years later and Backfence has announced they are closing shop.

Despite a recent history of management problems it seems to me that their demise was really just the result of a lack of execution, or of executing on the wrong plan. I have an inside source at Backfence, and he spoke frankly with me about the lack of open-mindedness at Backfence, a total stubbornness. Quite frankly, I’m relieved that Backfence is out of the way because if their present model did work, I think we’d all have to stop and take a very long and hard at the local advertising marketplace. Now, we just got more validation that the local advertising marketplace is not so naive, something I believe strongly in.

Peter Krasilovsky states,

“Ultimately, Backfence’s real legacy may be that it was a laboratory that helped pave the way for newspapers to seriously pursue hyper-local solutions that, notably, are not centered around local news (which it turns out, is not always very compelling). In the past several months, a number of useful, imaginative and fun newspaper hyperlocal sites have sprung up. Check out what The Washington Post is doing.”

I totally agree. They cleared a path through some very thick brush, and at the end of the path was a cliff. A trailblazer they were not.

Pete Cashmore at Mashable says that Backfence’s failure makes citizen journalism a failure. Well that’s an awfully bold headline! He says,

“The hyped “citizen journalism” trend isn’t panning out too well: Backfence, a network of 13 local sites where users could post their news items, classifieds and photos, is shutting down.”

And goes on to say,

“[Backfence and sites like it] were too ambitious, and focused too heavily on “journalism” instead of tech. Notice how the most successful “user generated writing” sites are really just about getting your users to write and rank material that turns up in search engines: success story Topix is all about good SEO, not some Utopian vision of users becoming journalists.”

I partly agree with this. Pete is right about one thing, for sure – “users” and “journalism” don’t go well together. I couldn’t agree with that more. That notion, in and of itself, is flawed. It’s almost an oxymoron – “citizen journalism.” I think that term clearly demonstrates how respect for real journalism is at an all-time low – it’s gotta be. That’s sad to me.

But in my not-so-humble opinion, Backfence’s demise has about as much to do with “tech” as it does with Britney Spears shaving her head. The reality, the apparent reality anyway, is that the execution was done poorly. It’s debatable whether or not “citizen journalism” at a hyper-local level could ever work. My instincts tell me that it can, if it’s done right. It seems to me that the problems were really that management got tangled up in itself, and according to my source, it refused to consider other methods of scaling. Hyper-local journalism can definitely work, but not in the way Backfence was going about it. It’s an exciting opportunity. Rob Curley (the poster boy for hyper-local news) is not just an anomaly, Rob Curley is a success story. And the Washington Post (now Rob’s employer) as Peter K. points out, is really onto some exciting stuff.

Hyper-local journalism can work.

I’m interested in how this affects Mike Orren, my friend at Pegasus News. Mike’s company seems to have a different approach to hyper-local news, one that makes better sense in many ways. Mike?

Amended 2007-07-16: See this article for Potts’ explanations.

Hyper-Local Going Mainstream

I’m a loyal New York Times reader, both online but also their Sunday paper. It shows up on my doorstep every Sunday morning and I often look forward to sitting in the kitchen and reading the paper, while my wife makes our Sunday breakfast. Long after we’ve eaten I’m still sitting at the kitchen island sipping a mug of cooling coffee (freshly pressed) and reading the Times.

The NY Times had a notable little piece in their Sunday edition this weekend (12/31/06), titled Seeking to Cash In On the ‘Hyperlocal’. While Manly refers to “Hyperlocal” as all news things that are hyperlocal, I can’t help but smile knowing that the term is getting more mainstream attention. Lorne Manly refers to the Rob Curley breed of hyperlocal: news oriented hyperlocal content (whether user generated or editorial). This model of hyperlocal, as the article points out, is what Backfence is doing. Another example of this is what Mike Orren is doing at Pegasus News in Texas. All of these are hyperlocal news based sites. Rob Curley’s done a heck of job in some of his markets (notably, Naples and Bonita Daily News, and the Lawrence Journal before he went to the Washington Post), and in doing so helping to shape what has has become “hyperlocal.” I look forward to a fusion of hyperlocal journalism and local search in the coming months and years.