When Ted Mann started Gannett’s InJersey hyperlocal news sites two years ago, he wanted them to become a nexus of community conversation. He envisioned that about half of the sites’ content would come from Gannett staffers and half would come from local community members.
That didn’t happen, though; there were not enough community contributions or enough Gannett staffers to keep the sites going.
“The layoffs were the straw that broke the camel’s back … and they accelerated the decision to do this,” said Mann, digital development director at Gannett New Jersey and founder of InJersey.com. “Sooner or later we were going to have to do this unless all of a sudden I had a great deal of funding and I could really staff up on these sites and rethink the platform.”
The site’s demise demonstrates the challenges of sustaining a hyperlocal news site. In a phone interview, Mann told me more about the difficulties InJersey faced and what he learned from the experience.
Losing staff to layoffs
InJersey.com launched in seven towns across the state in June 2009, with six full-time reporters. The reporters served as editors of their town’s InJersey microsite while also working full-time for the Gannett papers in those towns.
InJersey.com gradually expanded to cover 17 towns, and in several cases, one person maintained multiple towns.
“I was always a strong advocate of having one editor for each town,” Mann said by phone. “In those towns where we did that — Freehold, Woodbridge, East Brunswick, Plainfield — the whole operation worked much better.”
Having reporters who split their time between InJersey.com and the paper they worked for proved to be difficult. Though they tried to juggle both, their work for the paper often took precedence. Mann said another drawback was that the staffers didn’t live in the towns they covered, making it harder for them to fully immerse themselves in the community.
Colleen Curry, who covered the town of Freehold for InJersey.com and Gannett’s Asbury Park Press, acknowledged that it was a struggle. Six months ago, she began covering Freehold full-time for the Asbury Park Press in addition to editing the Freehold InJersey.com site.
“When I took over the print beat full-time, the hyperlocal began to take a back seat,” Curry said. “I tried to use it to tease the stories I was working on for print, and sometimes I would rewrite them or write them differently for both properties, but you can only write so many full news stories a day, and so in the end, I was just posting the same story in both places.”
Difficulty generating local ad revenue
Selling advertising for the InJersey sites proved challenging because the sites didn’t have their own advertising staffs. The sales staff from the New Jersey Gannett papers were in charge of InJersey’s advertising, but many of these staffers were laid off.
“The sales staff are already stretched thin across the company,” Curry said by phone. “And we didn’t sell enough local advertising to pay for staffers for the site.”
While Freehold InJersey’s site peaked at about 65,000 views a month, there were other InJersey sites that only got a couple thousand page views a month. Because the sales staff were used to selling ads for the Gannett newspaper sites, which generated a lot more traffic, “it was hard for them to get past the page view mentality,” Mann said. “The reps who sold it successfully played up the engagement with the community, and in several cases the advertisers came to us asking to support the site in some way.”
Mann said he’s convinced after his experience with InJersey that display advertising isn’t profitable enough for hyperlocal sites.
“From what I’ve seen on our sites, and several others, I don’t see how display advertising is going to be enough to support a hyperlocal,” Mann said. “But I do think there are a lot of other revenue streams that hyperlocals can build — running events, sponsoring things, selling merchandise.”
Not all hyperlocal sites have difficulty with advertising. Howard Owens, who started the hyperlocal site The Batavian, said in a recent Poynter.org chat that taking ads only from locally owned businesses, and giving businesses 100 percent of the impressions for their ad slot, has worked well for the site.
By giving them 100 percent of the impressions, Owens said, “they get sufficient traffic to their sites to be pleased with the results. The click-through rate may only be .02 percent, but that might be 60 clicks, and that’s 60 visitors to their site they wouldn’t have gotten without the ad, and they’re very happy with that traffic in a small market like this.”
A lack of contributions from community members
One of Mann’s goals was to give local residents a platform for publishing blog posts and photos that captured their community. He wanted 50 percent of the content on each of the InJersey sites to come from community members, but none of the sites met this goal. Only 10 percent of FreeholdInJersey.com’s content, for instance, was from the community.
When Mann designed the InJersey sites on WordPress, he made it easy for people to post content to the site. After registering, users could publish their own stories without having to run them by an editor. The sites’ editors would then give the contributors feedback and help them cultivate other story ideas.
To get community members on board, InJersey.com staffers worked with the Citizens Campaign and held training sessions for local community members who had expressed interest in contributing. They eventually teamed up to help form the New Jersey Hyperlocal News Association. Still, the citizen journalist workshops didn’t generate the results Mann had hoped they would.
“If you got 10 people to the session and got one of those people to turn into a regular contributor, you were happy,” he said. “I don’t have a good explanation as to why it was so hard. I guess it’s that the will to contribute wasn’t quite there.”
Curry also created a coffeehouse newsroom last year to find story ideas and be a more visible presence in the community. (The editor of Patch’s Freehold site also works out of coffee shops.)
“The goal there was to boost the community contributions,” said Curry, who regularly used social media to let people know she was at the shop. “I hoped people would come in and converse with me and blog with me, but logistically it didn’t work out. People in the towns where we were aren’t sitting in coffee shops from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.” She changed her hours at the shop to see if that made a difference, but it didn’t.
Nonetheless, her efforts to reach out to the community weren’t in vain.
“I think the one thing that kept us going for as long as we did was how supportive the community was of the blog,” said Curry, who got several notes from community members who didn’t want to see the site shut down. “We had an active community that relied on us for news. By going out and meeting people in the community at the coffee shop and at tweetups I held, and just really making those personal connections — that kept readers coming back.”
Challenges hyperlocals face, tips for success
Curry said editors of hyperlocal sites have to figure out how to take advantage of social media. She found that instead of contributing to Freehold InJersey, readers often posted photos and notes about their community on Facebook and Twitter.
“A lot of our conversation shifted halfway through from lively comment discussion on my blog to lively discussion on Facebook,” Curry said. “That’s fewer eyeballs on our page to see how the discussion is evolving.”
In a two-part series about hyperlocals, Slate Media Critic Jack Shafer said earlier this week that social networking sites already give readers a lot of the hyperlocal news they’re looking for: “For users who tune their Facebook accounts to include neighbors, schools, curmudgeons, and other sources, they get a stream of hyperlocal news in addition to the usual social news they desire.”
Shafer pointed out that there’s a “hyperlocal cemetery — where Bayosphere; The Washington Post’s LoudounExtra; Allbritton’s TBD; Backfence; and The New York Times’ New Jersey experiment, “The Local” are taking the dirt nap.” (The Times redirected traffic from “The Local” to Baristanet, another hyperlocal site in New Jersey.)
In hindsight, it’s not terribly surprising that InJersey.com couldn’t sustain itself. The factors that contributed to InJersey’s demise suggest some valuable lessons for hyperlocals.
Acknowledge the time commitment of an effort like this. A hyperlocal site needs staffers who are dedicated to the operation full-time. “Timewise, you shouldn’t get into this unless you’re willing to spend at least the first couple of years working essentially around the clock,” Owens said in our live chat.
“You have to have an organic connection to your community. You have to live there, or somebody has to live there, so you are in touch with the community. This is the problem that I think that the newspaper companies have had with community news in general. And then they have a compounded problem when you get to community news online. It’s that they sent people who didn’t live in the community. They spelled the name of the mayor wrong. They didn’t go to Rotary. They didn’t go to Little League games. They weren’t invested in the community. And so they ended up vulnerable franchises.”
Know the value that your site can bring to local advertisers. There’s a tendency to want to focus on page views, but that’s just one small part of a hyperlocal site’s value to advertisers. In a blog post last fall, Owens wrote that small local business owners want to know that their ads will be part of a site that a lot of locals visit:
“In order for your site to be a must-be advertising spot for local business owners, it must be the news site that generates all of the buzz and conversation in your community. You need people talking about your content so that business owners hear their customers talking about your stories … You can line up all the metrics you like, but if you don’t have buzz, you won’t sell ads. Once you have buzz, metrics don’t matter.”
Figure out what motivates your community to contribute. Offering training to community members who want to contribute is a great step toward getting user-generated content. But to get quality contributions on a regular basis, you have to understand what motivates people.
Getting exposure, being edited, having an opportunity for self-expression, having your work featured on a nicely designed site, being part of an online community and getting paid are just some examples of motivators. It also helps to “master the art of the prompt.”
“The prompts, ‘Hey, what do you think?,’ or ‘Tell us something cool,’ emphatically don’t work,” Robin Sloan said last year at the Online News Association conference. “Instead, it’s these slightly more specific and slightly more constraining prompts that do.” You want to make the prompt “something that anyone, in theory, might have something to say about.”
As InJersey.com proves, not all hyperlocal sites are going to reach the goals they set out to accomplish. The key for others looking to start a hyperlocal site is to develop content and advertising strategies that will prevent them from making some of the same mistakes.