In EveryBlock's legacy, the promise and limits of hyperlocal success

Hyperlocal news and community discussion site EveryBlock closed Thursday, as NBC News announced it struggled to become profitable and was not a "strategic fit."

The closing was a surprise to everyone outside the company, and many people immediately began discussing the journalism and technology legacy of EveryBlock and what, if anything, might succeed in its wake.

Dan Sinker, head of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project, says "we’re all living in Everyblock’s world now":

The impact of Everyblock goes far beyond the traffic to the site itself. Everyblock is one of those ideas that bent the world in a new way when it came around. One of those ideas that felt both so obvious and so ingenious simultaneously, that it looked *easy* when it was anything but. Back when it launched in 2008, the idea of arcane civic data being of use to regular citizens didn’t really exist. The idea of geolocation-based information gathering didn’t really exist. The idea of (shudder) “hyperlocal” information at the street-level didn’t really exist. And yet today, five years later, these ideas are commonplace thanks in large part to Everyblock proving that they were possible and vital.

EveryBlock co-founder Daniel X. O'Neil reflected on his experiences in the early days, trying to pry all the data he could find from the grasp of local governments:

I got to be a crazy person from the future, calling up a public information officer of the building department of a city of 8 million people and asking him to send me his building permits. He asked me, “which one?”. I said, “all of them”. He said “what date?” I said, “all of them”. There was a very long silence on the line, then he told me I was crazy, and basically hung up.

The municipal government of New York doesn’t think I’m crazy anymore. Anyone can download what I asked for in a single click now. ... We won the open data movement.

The city of Chicago's own chief technology officer, John Tolva, concurred in this tweet:


The next challenge, O'Neil says, is figuring out how to build popular information products around that data.

That was the biggest shortcoming of EveryBlock, argues Tom Grubisich at StreetFight, a news site covering the hyperlocal industry. "EveryBlock was a pioneer in collecting, sorting, and filtering data. But it had not progressed to transforming its neat digital piles of information into knowledge."

"Doing that, though, takes more than coding and software. It takes human mindware, the sort produced by editors and contributors who don’t accept every data point as gospel," Grubisich writes.

That's not to say EveryBlock was just a bunch of statistics and records. It pivoted in recent years to a focus on social interaction among neighbors rather than just data streams. And there was a strong outpouring of dismay yesterday from actual users who said the site had become an invaluable part of community life.

Many of those users, though, seemed to come from EveryBlock's home market of Chicago; less so from the other 15 major U.S. cities it served. So perhaps there's also a lesson here about the scale at which hyperlocal community infrastructure can be spread.

Patrick Thornton said on Twitter that "the concept of EveryBlock is sound, but each individual city should be controlled by a local news org, not a national org."

That's also one of the big lessons the Knight Foundation learned from other early experiments in hyperlocal, community-driven news sites. The successful ones tend to be home-grown in their particular communities, and one community's model can't necessarily be copied to another.

Mark Armstrong writes for Nieman Lab, based on his experience of becoming a parent, that one key to hyperlocal news is serving and connecting parents within a community:

When we talk about local, many of us are really talking about kids.

... I’m certainly not suggesting that only parents care about their communities—that’s not the case at all, and every city will have a diverse makeup of people who make their community special.

But what I am suggesting is that parenting is something can force a passive resident (like myself) to suddenly pay closer attention to what’s going on around me. It’s what made me realize there is a lot of local information missing from my media diet. And I want a remedy.

That remedy:

  • Carry forward the open-data movement.
  • Mix in human curation.
  • Tailor it uniquely to your community.
  • Put it under local control.
  • Focus on specific core audiences, like parents.

And you're golden. Maybe. If you can figure out how to make money from even a popular hyperlocal site.

It's easier to imagine the editorial and community solutions than the business solutions that would financially support the people and technology it takes to do this well.

AOL's network of about 900 Patch sites reported revenue well below its target in the latest earnings report. CEO Tim Armstrong says Patch is focused more on reducing expenses, and hopes to gain regional advertisers and partner with newspapers and TV stations.

Forbes' Jeff Bercovici notes that "the revenue miss comes as Patch is approaching crunch time. For the past couple years, Armstrong has been promising that the network will achieve run-rate profitability by the fourth quarter of 2013."

If it doesn't, by this time next year the last large-scale experiment in hyperlocal may join EveryBlock on the past-tense pile of "things we tried."

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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