Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Gannett closes Hyper-Local Online News efforts in NJ

Major newspaper group owner Gannett has been one of the leaders among exploring the use of highly-focused and hyper-local online news sites operated in conjunction with traditional print newspapers.  Layoffs within the local Gannett papers were given as the primary reason for closing the sites, all of which operated under the larger InJersey.com site.  While the site's still up, no new material will be posted.
InJersey.com was launched in 2009, with hyper-local sites opened in more than a dozen towns by the end of 2010.  The hope was that the hyper-local sites would generate local interest and local contributions, with a goal of 50% of content coming from user contributions, the rest from 6 full-time reporters assigned to InJersey.com.  However, user-generated content rarely exceeded 10%, and the hyperlocal sites failed to generate the audience numbers needed for the sites to be supported through online display advertising. 
Ted Mann, who started InJersey for Gannett, perhaps gave a hint of the problem when he commented:
"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 ... but I do think there are a lot of other revenue streams that hyperlocals can build - running events, sponsoring things, selling merchandise."
It seems that Gannett's approach to hyperlocals, in this case, was an extension of the currently troubled print model: looking to professionals for content, and for a combination of local, regional, and national display ad sales for revenue.  Mann mentioned the ways that hyperlocal news sites could gain revenues, yet it seems that Gannett relied on its own newspaper sales force to sell only display ads - with little incentive to spend the time in smaller communities, or with local businesses, to build up local ad sales.  And little interest in thinking how else a hyperlocal site could generate revenues.
While Mann hoped for significant local contributions, it also seemed that there was an sense of wanting to maintain a professional news focus - both in quality and in the types of content they were looking for. Potential community contributors were asked to register and attend training sessions or workshops before they could submit "news stories" without having to go through an editor.  Even then, editors "would give feedback and cultivate story ideas."  This suggests that the InJersey.com focus was on controlling the flow of content and topics, keeping the focus on appropriate "news", rather than letting content emerge organically from the community.  One staffer commented that people in the community she covered posted photos, notes, and short stories on community Facebook and Twitter sites, instead of their InJersey.com hyperlocal site.  Her thought was that the hyperlocal site should exploit social media, missing the point that posting on social media is easy, open, unfiltered - and often not "newsworthy" in a traditional sense, much less fully fleshed out.as a "story".
A report of the closings on the Poynter site concluded that "in hindsight, it's not terribly surprising that InJersey.com couldn't sustain itself."  But based on the factors contributing to their demise, and the lessons learned by many of the more successful hyper-local sites, they offer some lessons for hyperlocals:
  • Recognize the time commitment this kind of effort takes, and commit to it
  • Recruit staffers who live in the community
  • Know the value of your site for local advertisers, and exploit it
  • Figure out what motivates your community to contribute
Hyper-local sites can be an important and successful part of the community - but the main lesson is that it needs to be part of the community, its interests and its needs.  Not merely an adjunct to, or an extension of, some outside news organization or media..

Sources:  "Gannett Shutters Hyper-Local NJ Sites," MediaDailyNews
"Gannett layoffs accelerated demise of InJersey hyperlocal news sites,"  Poynter.org

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