Friday, July 01, 2011

Hyperlocal: InJersey autopsy

With Gannett closing its InJersey hyperlocal sites this week, there is a good autopsy in StreetFight that you should read.

Written by Ted Mann, Gannett's New Jersey digital development director, it's one of those rare assessments that is neither shrouded in black nor shaded by rose-colored glasses. It's pretty much just the cold, hard facts (OK, with a little hopefulness thrown in).

Some of the things I thought were interesting:
  • News maps are eye-candy, not much else. As Mann says, that might change as geolocative and mobile are more integrated, but for now, no one seems to be clicking on them. I still think such visual representations might be the best way to present some individual stories especially when location is a key (I still go back to my July Fourth map of parades, fireworks, etc., instead of a river of text), but this does add a dose of reality to the mix.
  • Aggregation and syndication are NOT the way to build viable hyperlocal sites. I and others have said it, but let's let Mann say it: It was almost immediately apparent that we’d ripped the soul out of the sites, and they quickly became ghost towns.
  •  Flashy content management systems don't matter. You can build a good site on the cheap. But it has to have content and features people want. InJersey used WordPress and BuddyPress. (This is reinforced from my own experience with Hartsville Today. The CMS doesn't matter, but the features and ease of use do. When Media General ditched Drupal and moved the site to Expression Engine, but without using any of the EE plug-ins so that it became just a glorified message board without the ease of associating pictures with posts, an online calendar, a list of recent posts and comments, etc., the site lost users in droves, and they said that was exactly why. (To the credit of a developer at one of MG's papers, some of that functionality was restored, but too late and not the calendar, which effectively migrated to Facebook.).)
  • Modesty is the best quality when it comes to expectations of growing audience (which is why - my comment here - hyperlocal sites and large media chains simply may not mix). Mann says the 17 sites had 2,259 members and 90 regular contributors. One of the sites had 65,000 pageviews in a month (he doesn't break out others, though in a Poynter piece he says some others had only a few thousand). Those of us in the trenches might rejoice at some of those numbers, but they are not enough inside a big organization that is looking for profitability and cash flow and measures audience in numbers far larger.
  • Banner ads couldn't support the site. No surprise there, but the debate will continue. Mann references Howard Owens, a friend of mine, who does seem to have success with The Batavian.
  • If you build it, they won't come - at least if it means doing any work. We all know this, but Mann's postmortem reflects it. See the 90 regular contributors above out of 2,259 members, or 4%. And, yes, there was a self-serve ad platform, but as Mann notes: [T]here was definitely an appetite among local advertisers to support the kind of reporting and coverage we were providing. Still loved using Flyerboard, we just had to sell them, create the ads, and schedule it all ourselves.
  • People staffing the sites need to live in the communities. Many of the Gannett journalists did not.
There are some other good points, too. As I said, well worth reading. There are holes to be poked and points to be debated and, as they say, your results may differ, but overall it's a good assessment that should be useful going forward.

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