In Hyperlocal News, Where’s the Urgency?

Not to get all Newtonian, but let me propose Edmonds’ Law of Inverse Urgency: the more local or hyperlocal the news, the less important it is to get it right away.

I would keep these musings to myself, except that ventures like AOL’s Patch, with its projected $50 million investment this year in 500 sites and 500 newly-hired journalists, continue to try to square the hyperlocal circle. The hypothetical kitty — $15 billion to $30 billion in local online marketing revenues — continues to lure prospectors, even in the face of repeated failures.

Awhile ago I started thinking about urgency and online news more generally, asking a working group of scholars whether the current mania to know what’s happening right now is a new phenomenon. No, Tom Leonard, a librarian and media historian at University of California, Berkeley, said. A generation or two ago, crowds would gather at newspaper offices to watch the news and stock market ticker or to get updates of big sports events.

In January 2009, big news broke during Poynter’s National Advisory Board meeting. That was the afternoon that “Sully” brought that crippled jet down safely in the Hudson River. We interrupted what we were doing to discuss the merits of tweets and citizen photos versus more deliberate traditional reports.

My wife, a busy professional who often doesn’t find time for the news until the evening, has also provided some field observations for my news consumption studies. Like many people, for the really big stories — the Haitian earthquake, the Fort Hood shootings — she will stay glued to CNN by the hour, watching for new developments or fresh insight amid the rehash.

Now, switch to the neighborhood level. First, there generally are no Fort Hood shootings, Hudson River landings or Haitian earthquakes in my neighborhood or yours. The news is smaller-bore but interesting enough if you live nearby.

I have a hard time, though, recalling a neighborhood story I wish I had known about right away.

Adrian Holovaty’s EveryBlock is not on my block yet. Patch is hiring but has not yet launched around Tampa Bay. I checked EveryBlock’s offering on my dicey, semi-gentrified old West Philadelphia neighborhood and concluded it would be worth regular visits if I still lived there. (Holovaty is a former member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board.)

But sampling a host of aspiring online hyperlocal franchises — Examiner.com, Outside.in, OurTown.com and others — I’m consistently underwhelmed. One roundup of “news within a mile of me” had crime stories a month old and many reports on the business travails of Outback Steakhouse’s parent company. (There is an Outback within a mile of where we live.) In fairness, Examiner.com seems to feature generic content with little effort at breaking news.

Another Internet entrepreneur, whose name mercifully escapes me, told me for a Biz Blog post about a service he was developing that would tell me what my neighbors were saying about my house and about me and my family. High-value, need-to-know stuff? I don’t think I care.

My hyperlocal needs are met pretty well by a trio of non-daily print publications. We have two neighborhood newspapers: one a homeowners’ association newsletter, another an independently published, feature-ish glossy tab. Both are published every month or so.

I read them as thoroughly as I do Time magazine for news of business openings and closings along the commercial Fourth Street strip nearby, developments in the restaurant scene, and real estate news about our once hot-hot-hot and still historic neighborhood.

The St. Petersburg Times, through 40 years of trial and error (I contributed to some of the error as an editor in the early 1990s), is a master of zoning. Twice a week in the Neighborhood Times section, there are real stories by real reporters, nearby enough to engage me in matters I wouldn’t care a fig about if they had happened in Clearwater or Tampa. It is not unusual for the Sunday version to include an account of a Thursday night meeting that didn’t make the big paper. I’m fine with that.

So I’m a news omnivore. I want to know what’s going on, be it international, national, state, local, sports or hyperlocal. I’ll check websites for current tidings of the first five of those news categories many times in the course of the day. But if it is an update on recent home sale transactions or even the District 43 police blotter, I’m okay with waiting a day or a week.

Smart people like Jim Brady and company at TBD in Washington, D.C., continue to think that a hyperlocal sorting of the news with some fresh reporting and lots of links will prove to be part of a winning strategy. It’s too early to know whether the ambitious TBD launch will pay off in audience and acceptance by local merchants — but I can’t spot a breakthrough concept out there like Groupon’s deal-of-the-day.

The Patch business model has invited skepticism and more skepticism. The first wave of hyperlocal starts all underperformed financially as local online advertising failed to materialize in the volume or at the rates hoped for.

Those hyperlocal sites that have hit a sweet spot in news and commerce — West Seattle Blog, Dallas South News or Ann Arbor Chronicle — often combine an underserved and reasonably populous geography, a hard-working proprietor and some journalistic chops.

But these strike me as eccentric (in a good way) exceptions, not the rule. The cookie-cutter sites, especially, seem to lack depth, heft and timeliness of content that would bring readers frequently or cause them to linger.

Am I missing something?

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