There has been significant discussion about the future of hyperlocal news. Everybody seems to think that technical platforms such as Facebook and Google have disintermediated local news, and that it’s game over. We don’t think this is true at all, in fact we believe that the opportunities for local news are tremendous!
Not too long ago, Josh Stearns highlighted a video featuring Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune. It’s less than 4 minutes of brilliant insight, and I strongly recommend you watch it. In the video, Evan says some exceptionally insightful things. As a technologist, I strongly agreed with his comment that news organizations need to become technology companies (or at a minimum have technology at a strong core to their being). I also liked the cigarette boat analogy – in the tech world we call this the “Lean Startup.” However, the one thing he said that resonated most strongly was his opinion on the future of news:
“The future of news is not when it’s published, it’s done. It’s when it’s published it’s just beginning.”
There is a segment of the publishing industry that is growing and doesn’t get a lot of attention – the hyperlocal digital publisher. This is somebody that is covering a community – whether it be a neighborhood in Manhattan or Brooklyn, or a series of small towns in Pennsylvania or Ohio. In many cases, they may be the only voice covering truly community-based news. This is a segment of the industry that has not been disrupted by the tech platforms but has the potential to drown in all the noise caused by them.
Applying Evan’s opinion to hyperlocals, we offer the following suggestions/advice for how they can become authoritative in their communities:
- Content isn’t enough – I had a conversation with Keith Longmore who has been in the publishing industry for quite some time. He was complaining that few people value great content like they used to. It reminded me of something me and my colleagues would say about the software companies we were competing against – that it seemed like the best technology rarely won. It was the company that marketed itself the best, and they usually had mediocre software. In today’s age, publishing is very similar.
It’s not when it’s published it’s done, it’s just beginning! Hyperlocals need to think through how their content “lives” – how long does it live, where does it live, how does it get oxygen to breath and grow? Writing great content is simply not enough.
- Focus your authority – Matt DeRienzo wrote a great post about the hyperlocal news ecosystem, and his major point is that you don’t have to build an idea that’s going to require venture capital and/or scale to match the tech platforms. I’ll go a step further – hyperlocals win when they create authority in their community. One of the typical mistakes is trying to carve out too large a community to be authoritative. Authority at the hyperlocal level is best done small to large. In other words, pick the smallest possible area you can “win” and be authoritative there first. Once you’ve done that, then try to increase the radius of authority. Don’t try to be authoritative in too large an area initially, it’s actually much harder.
- Apply Lean Startup principles – While hyperlocal digital publishers may not be looking for venture capital, they should be acting like a startup. They have the ability to test and measure lots of different ideas and see what works. Double down on the things that are working, and dismiss the things that are not. My only caution is to make sure you give yourself enough time to test each thesis, don’t give up too soon, and don’t hang on too long. This is a really hard discipline to master, but it’s imperative. Also, make sure all decisions are data-driven as much as possible. Most tests can easily have a data component that you use to test the results. Try to avoid making gut feel decisions that lack hard data.
We are extremely bullish on the future of hyperlocal news. There are some energetic publisher’s who provide an amazingly critical service to our communities and should be supported as much as possible. At the same time, many of them did come from larger news organizations that didn’t need to apply startup principles to their efforts. The new breed of local news will be lean, startup savvy and authoritative online in their communities. We look forward to this evolution!