Andrew Chavez

Andrew Chavez serves as director of digital media for the Schieffer School. He teaches a class on new media Web tools, is the adviser for TCU 360 and The 109, a local news site that covers the 76109 ZIP code, and oversees the digital operations of the school’s student media. Before joining the Schieffer School, he worked at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as a part-time night police reporter. Chavez is also the associate director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism, a TCU-based center that focuses on helping small rural and suburban newspapers in Texas. He is a former editor of the TCU Daily Skiff and a graduate of the Schieffer School.


Why some hyperlocal sites struggle to attract audiences, generate revenue

Reports about the death of hyperlocal have been greatly exaggerated.

That was the takeaway from a panel of entrepreneurs and observers of hyperlocal and local news sites at a South by Southwest Interactive panel Monday.

Local news sites continue to pop up across the country, despite a high churn rate among small local sites. In 2007, one in eight Americans lived in a city or town with a local blog, panelist and Placeblogger Founder Lisa Williams said. Now, closer to half of Americans live in a city with a local blog. Data from Placeblogger, an index of local blogs, show that between 50 and 60 percent of the local blogs indexed by the site don’t make it, Williams said.

Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab, wrote last month that of the 1,200 sites in J-Lab’s database of community news sites, about half are now inactive.

That doesn’t mean hyperlocal is doomed, panelists said. It does, however, mean that the conversations about hyperlocal need to be reframed.

Williams said the 4,100 independent hyperlocal sites indexed by Placeblogger — which greatly outnumber the nation’s 1,400 local dailies and the 800 venture- and foundation-funded local sites — are essentially small businesses, often with one or two employees bootstrapping to produce a local news product.

“The shape of capital really shapes our media,” Williams said. Few of the independent local sites have the capital that their larger counterparts have, so it makes sense that some would fail.

Good stats about the success rate of small businesses are hard to find, but the U.S. Small Business Administration does report closure rates of businesses that are also employers. (Mom-and-pop operations with an owner/editor/publisher model aren’t included.) According to the administration’s statistics, 30 percent of small business fail within two years, half within five years and 70 percent in 10 years.

The failure rate shouldn’t come as a surprise, panelists said, because many small news operations lack a revenue model. Williams said Placeblogger data show that only 4 percent of local and community sites have an advertising rate card.

Cory Bergman, co-founder of Next Door Media and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board, said there’s a direct relationship between the amount of money spent gathering news and the size of the audience a site can draw.

If sites with lower cost of production, such as Outside.in or EveryBlock, can figure out how to draw larger audiences without putting employees on the street to write stories, they’ll have a promising model. The same would be true, he said, if sites that put reporters on the street could trim costs by leveraging community content or technology.

Mark Briggs, director of digital media at KING-5 TV in Seattle and the Ford Fellow in Entrepreneurial Journalism at Poynter, said many organizations that do have a revenue strategy are forging ahead in the hyperlocal space. He gave several examples of current models for supporting hyperlocal, all of which have had varying levels of success.

Some, Briggs said, are surviving on advertising, a media-funding mainstay. But many others are supplementing their incomes with innovative revenue strategies that aren’t typically seen at the local level.

Briggs pointed to the St. Louis Beacon’s successful business events, which have made more than $200,000, and the social media consulting by the Sacramento Press, which now accounts for half of the site’s revenue.

The multimillion dollar investments that large media companies are making in the hyperlocal space is a sign that hyperlocal is still alive. Patch, funded by AOL, has spent tens of millions building a network of local sites. And some local nonprofit sites have found news business success.

Mike Orren, who founded Pegasus News and now consults with several hyperlocal sites, said many of the small local news sites have something going for them that Patch doesn’t — passion. “A lot of these businesses are passion projects,” Orren said.

Panelists agreed that passion gives hyperlocal entrepreneurs a leg up, despite the financial advantages large, well-funded players in the space may have.

Join Jeremy Caplan, Mark Briggs, Bill Mitchell and Wendy Wallace for Poynter’s Revenue Camp for Journalism Entrepreneurs, May 18-19. You can join by webcast or in person for the workshop in St. Petersburg, Fla., with additional coaching available. Read more

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5 ways news sites can improve their use of links

A person using a website — an “infovore,” to use researcher Jared Spool’s term — navigates the Web much like an animal hunting prey.

This means Web designers need to ensure that users don’t lose the “scent” of the information they’re hunting, Spool said during his South by Southwest Interactive talk, “The Secret Lives of Links.” Spool, who is CEO and founding principal of User Interface Engineering, said links — especially on news websites — tell stories. And the way websites use them can make or break a site.

Here are five main takeaways from his talk:

The more important something is, the more page real estate it should occupy. Users shouldn’t have to work to find the information they’re looking for. Spool summarized Fitt’s law, saying, “If the sucker is big and close, it’s easier to hit.”

Provide ample information on home pages, section pages, gallery pages, etc. Spool said designers have a tendency to strip typography from pages to avoid clutter. But he said clutter, to a user, has nothing to do with the amount of type on a page and everything to do with the amount of irrelevant type on a page. With that in mind, Spool encourages designers to provide enough information on landing pages to allow users to decide whether they want to click through to a story. Not doing so results in users bouncing back and forth from content pages to navigation pages, a phenomenon called “pogo-sticking.” This inevitably results in unsatisfied users, according to Spool’s research.

Links should look like links. A site should have a consistent “visual language” that includes common treatments for hyperlinks. That may mean common colors or consistent use of underlines and font weight. Links should also be loaded with “trigger words” that users may be looking for when searching a particular page on a site, as opposed to  phrases such as “click here” or “learn more.”

Search logs provide good feedback. Spool, who has been analyzing the way people use websites since 1995, said his research shows that users who turn to search are much less likely to find what they’re looking for than those who don’t. That’s because users who can’t find what they’re looking for on a page often use search as a last result. Analyzing search logs, Spool says, can therefore provide useful information about what site users are having a difficult time finding. Most site analytic tools, including Google Analytics, include this functionality.

Links shouldn’t distract users from the main content on the page. Automatically-generated tags (“computer-generated crap,” as Spool called it), text link ads, and other inline elements are bad for readability and shouldn’t be used within content blocks, he said. These cluttered designs, he noted, have created an even greater need for tools such as Instapaper and Readability, which attempt to parse out content from pages and allow users to read in a clean, ad- and link-free environment.

All five of Spool’s points relate back to the central idea of his talk: Never let your audience lose the scent of information. Design, he said, should be user-driven and focus on getting users where they want to go with the least amount of work. For news sites, that involves more than just design. It requires everything from making sure reporters and copy editors write engaging headlines with the best trigger words, to ensuring that analytics are monitored for navigation failures, to adopting a reader-first design approach. Read more
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