Recent coverage of – and commentary about – hyperlocal news has been falling into two perspectives: (1) There’s not enough money in it to sustain the business at a local level (UK’s Guardian Local closing) or (2) AOL’s Patch points the way to a national/local hybrid.
In both cases, the assumption is that local coverage requires an approach that carries tremendous overhead cost: a traditional newsroom approach to assigning, editing and delivering news.
But far under the radar of media watchers, there is a ton of local coverage being done piece by piece, primarily by a solo journalist covering a town, city or neighborhood. While this piece-by-piece coverage may not look significant enough to the pundits, it’s real and it has impact. Unfortunately, that piece-by-piece nature also means it’s barely sustainable because each site’s traffic isn’t enough to support a professional sales effort.
I’ve been getting a close-up look at this world for the past few months, working with a group of independent news sites in Chicago to figure out a sustainable business (a project supported by the Chicago Community Trust). These solo publishers are passionate about local news, and they wouldn’t need all that much revenue to keep going. They’re using free or cheap technology, lots of volunteers and their own energy to serve and grow local, loyal audiences. In many cases, their revenue is zero or close to it. So when these publishers talk about revenue opportunities, it’s a “glass half full” discussion. Contrast that with a traditional media company (like the Guardian) where any new initiative has to hit high revenue benchmarks to even look interesting.
That doesn’t make the business challenge any less daunting for independent sites. Building a sustainable business around local news takes resources and revenue to support them, which probably means some kind of group effort. But it doesn’t take the revenue that a traditional media business expects.
Remember, we’re in early times of local journalism’s reformation. There’s plenty of creative destruction in the works and still to come. A “hyperlocal” movement is under way, and it’s happening regardless of whether traditional media companies manage to make a business out of it.