The Local vs. Localism: Hyperlocal Media Wars

I’ve been meaning to check out The Local — New York Time’s foray into what they’re calling ‘hyperlocal’ media but only got around to it just now.  Imagine my surprise and pleasure to discover that my neighborhood (Millburn, Maplewood, and South Orange) is one of the two trial neighborhoods for The Local.  (The other one is Fort Greene & Clinton Hill area of Brooklyn.)

Of course, I’m not quite sure why the blog address has to be maplewood.blogs.nytimes.com rather than millburn.blogs.nytimes.com but I chalk that bias up to my L-Dub Lower Wyoming hood mentality.

The Local

In any case, it appears that The Local is written primarily by journalists or people who want to become journalists.

Tina Kelley, NYTimes reporter & Maplewood resident

Tina Kelley, NYTimes reporter & Maplewood resident

The primary poster is Tina Kelley, who is a reporter for the NYTimes and a resident of Maplewood.  There are, as of this writing, three other writers (bloggers?) for The Local including a journalism college student, a grad student in “politics and journalism” which sounds like a particularly horrible combo, and a Columbia Journalism student.  It is not immediately clear that the three student intern-types have any connection to Millburn/Maplewood/South Orange.

And the topics of The Local are a mishmash of police blotter news, cute promotions of local residents, and information about local political or community events.  But it is precisely the sort of thing that I, as a local resident, find interesting and even useful.

For example, I didn’t know that Maplewood is receiving $200,000 of federal money, but that the money can’t save the jobs of three cops who are being laid off due to budget problems.  Interesting info.  That’s actual news.  Maybe now that cops are being laid off in Maplewood, the township might consider promoting greater gun ownership among the residents?  Or maybe not.

In any case, while I find the overly-cutesy tone gratingly condescending, I can see what New York Times is trying to do with this experiment.  If these hyperlocal sites can turn a profit, then that might be the way out for the newspaper industry that is dying off, one by one.

The response from the community has been somewhat mixed.  Tina Kelley posted an initial “Why We’re Here” post and the comments have been a mix of support, brutal criticism, and a wait-and-see attitude.

A “Jay” wrote:

I don’t understand what this is supposed to be. I don’t see any solid mechanism to include content related to news items of pressing interest. Are you tied in with the Times and your wire service to dump stories related to our towns in here as blog entries?

A “MCH” commented:

If this is supposed to be a blog (a new thing), you need to stop modeling it after a newspaper (an old thing.) So, lose the datelines. The bylines. And the take-yourself-too-seriously tone. Surely the old gray lady can learn some new tricks. If not, then it’s buh-bye!

In contrast, people like “John X. Kim” are far more supportive:

I’m glad to hear that the foundation of The Local will be local news, considering every time I pick up the local rag I shake my head in disappointment.

There are tremendous opportunities for stories here in Maplewood/Millburn/South Orange…stories of local significance but also of national resonance. The unique demographics of Maplewood/SO make the towns a bellweather for larger cultural currents on politics, education, race relations, to name a few. (No doubt you and your editors know this already.)

As such, it’s my hope that the site will shy away from fluff and tackle difficult questions that often are NOT asked for the sake of keeping the neighborly peace, community boosterism, and other vagaries of small-town exigency. We can certainly heed Eric Holder’s admonishment about our collective cowardice about race and apply it to other pressing public conversations.

So welcome, and I look forward to joining!

[Now, one sidenote here.  The link address for John Kim's comment above is: http://maplewood.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/02/why-were-here/#comment-43.  Comment-43, got that?

On the thread, his comment is #10Where are the other 33 comments?

It seems that even in the blogosphere, the newspaper folks can't resist picking-and-choosing which "Letters to the Editor" see the light of day and which do not.  So I will be posting on my own blog, rather than trusting my "comment" to the tender mercies of the "editors" of The Local.]

Localism: Maplewood

Being that I am in the real estate industry, I couldn’t help but compare The Local to Localism, the ActiveRain project that Jonathan Washburn, CEO of ActiveRain, has said will pull more traffic in 24 months from launch that Trulia and Zillow combined.  That was July 28th, 2008.  So I figure we got sixteen months to go to see whether J-Dub was right or not.

So I went to Localism and searched for Maplewood.  And got to this:

Localism Maplewood's home page

Localism Maplewood's home page

It’s probably an unfortunate coincidence that the very first post on Maplewood’s Localism on the day I write this is an ad for a listing.  But then, that’s sort of a feature, not a bug, considering that Localism is written entirely by realtors and sold to realtors as a way to “connect with the community”.

My initial impulse is frankly to click “Back” simply because I am not in the market to buy anything in Maplewood, and being hit with a listing as the first piece of actual ‘journalistic content’ is enough to make me believe I’m at a spamsite.  But in the interest of science — science I tell you! — I soldier on.

If you do scroll down, and give the site a chance, it does appear that the realtors who write (at least for Localism Maplewood) do provide information and news that is not real estate specific.  For example, here’s a post about an artist who will be coming to do a presentation about animation careers at the Maplewood library.  It’s just the kind of info that local residents might care about.

Except… that I see no evidence of any local residents at Localism Maplewood based on the comments.  The place has the feel of a bunch of local brokers talking to each other, and providing market reports to each other, and out-of-market realtors coming to comment on listings and such.  It’s all so… I don’t know the term… artificial?  Like a circus being put on for the benefit of clowns and acrobats.  I just can’t imagine a local resident wanting to spend any time at Localism Maplewood, since the news and info are sporadic at best, and are completely self-serving advertorials at worst.

Localism features lots of content about the local real estate market.  House prices are doing this, house prices are doing that, here are the past X closed transactions, and so on and so forth.  The “community news” stuff seems really like an afterthought add-on, as if to say, “Hey, we uh… we live here too.”  It’s somewhat like the worst possible agent blog possible made that much worse because it’s a sort of forced group-blog.

Which makes sense.  I mean, I assume most of the people writing for Localism have their own blog.  I know Perri Feldman — a contributor to Localism Maplewood — has her own blog, and her own website, and an active social media marketing thingamajig.  (And she’s a member of the Lucky Strike Social Media Club — woohoo!)  I guess in the time that’s left over, sort of as an afterthought (it seems), Perri must recycle a post or two from her blog onto Localism Maplewood.

And everyone else does too.  So no narrative, no coherent flow, no personality, just a bunch of market stats and listings, with little bits of local info thrown in there like raisins in a peculiarly chintzy loaf of raisin bread.

Perhaps other communities’ Localism pages are far better.  I don’t know.  But comparing The Local: Maplewood to Localism: Maplewood feels somewhat like comparing, well, the New York Times with all of its haughtiness and enforced cleverness to AutoShopper.

Apples and Oranges?

To some extent, I suppose you’d have to cry foul at the comparison.  After all, The Local is a venture by the New York frikkin Times, with a professionally-trained reporter who is getting paid to blog about three small towns.  And she has three interns to help her.  And she has nothing to sell you, so she’s free to just do hyperlocal content.

Localism, in contrast, is a hyperlocal blog put together by realtors who have a vested interest in selling someone a home.  The goal isn’t to provide local news and info to local residents; it’s to educate out-of-towners on what it might be like to live in Maplewood.  Right?

Well… not so much:

Localism is the valued point of connection, a place of meaningful interaction. It’s where neighbors and local merchants share what’s happening in their community. It’s people collectively communicating the unique flavor and nuances of where they live, work, eat, and play.

As long as Localism is run mostly by realtors, this vision is pure fantasy.  In reality, the best that Localism can aspire to is to become a place where local realtors give consumers an excellent rundown of the local real estate market, local listings, and service providers.

Because there is no incentive at all for “neighbors” to share anything whatsoever with the folks at Localism.  If you’re not a blogger-realtor, then you have no way to enter content or to participate, except in the comments.

The Local has a better shot at becoming the hyperlocal media channel, but it too has enormous issues to confront and overcome.

One issue is that Maplewood already has a hyperlocal media channel: Maplewood Online.  The notion may be that the New York Times and its talented journalists can do hyperlocal just better than the gimps over at Maplewood Online, but… I got news for ya (get it? I got news… oh nevermind).  There ain’t much skill involved in copying police blotters and posting up cartoons and pictures of local residents.  Sorry.

If Tina Kelley were to post a piece of investigative journalism where she risked life and limb to expose the decisionmaking behind Millburn lawmakers’ screwing of taxpayers with a $10m boondoggle giveaway to the Paper Mill Playhouse, why that might be the kind of news I would find absolutely indispensable.  But copying and pasting police blotter reports requires a graduate degree in politics and journalism?  Right then.

And The Local really has to drop its authoritarian approach and its condescending tone to local news.  Bigtime journos might think that stories about local police layoffs should be filed under “News By the Slice” with photos of a pizza, since it isn’t about war, famine, or national politics.  We get that you think what you’re doing is “cute” and beneath your many years of reportage, and the tragedy of your having to cover local news instead of the latest Supreme Court ruling or the pronunciamentos of Barack Obama is overwhelming us too.

But those of us who live here are deeply impacted by local laws, local policies, and local businesses.  We happen to think it’s pretty damn cool that Maplewood restaurants are having a “Restaurant Week”.  So have a little respect.  Or expect us residents to stay the hell away in droves.

Hyperlocal Media

For what it’s worth, hyperlocal media may very well be the future of media.  Seriously, while the current march towards the worker’s paradise will affect me and (more importantly) my children in a few year’s time, what the Millburn School Board decides to do at the next meeting might affect me this year in a far more personal and immediate way.

It would be great to have a single source that fills the role that newspapers and these journalism degree-havin’ folks like to fill at the national stage.  I would read that site religiously.

Localism ain’t it, unless it undergoes a total transformation of focus away from trying to sell real estate.  The Local ain’t it, unless it too undergoes a transformation and embraces the community on which it is reporting — and in fact, actually does some, you know, reporting.  The answer may be in social media, like MaplewoodOnline and Baristanet, as more and more journalists leave the newspaper business (by choice or not) and end up having to learn whole new skills in web-based, local, community-powered media.

It’ll be interesting to watch.

-rsh

  • http://www.mylasflores.com/ Linsey

    I’m in the midst of finishing a hyperlocal site. It’s not intended to be anything other than what it is – real estate information about one community. It’s not meant to provide general news, garage sales, community events, etc. It’s purely intended to be just what it is and nothing more – current real estate stats, recent sales, and current listings. We’ll see the response I get as I launch it.

    I think part of the trouble is the mixed messages. The content must be in alignment with the goal and stated direction of the site or it simply misses the mark.

    I post to Localism exactly as you described – recycled posts from my blog in the hopes that those interested in my local real estate content will return to me directly for more of the specific real estate content about the community that interests them.

  • http://www.mylasflores.com Linsey

    I’m in the midst of finishing a hyperlocal site. It’s not intended to be anything other than what it is – real estate information about one community. It’s not meant to provide general news, garage sales, community events, etc. It’s purely intended to be just what it is and nothing more – current real estate stats, recent sales, and current listings. We’ll see the response I get as I launch it.

    I think part of the trouble is the mixed messages. The content must be in alignment with the goal and stated direction of the site or it simply misses the mark.

    I post to Localism exactly as you described – recycled posts from my blog in the hopes that those interested in my local real estate content will return to me directly for more of the specific real estate content about the community that interests them.

  • http://www.thexbroker.com/ JeffX

    “As long as Localism is run mostly by Realtors, this vision is pure fantasy.”

    Astutely insightful as usual Rob.

    Currently all content on Localism is generated from within ActiveRain by its members, tagged and syndicated out at their opt-in/check-box request. Since AR is real estate professional centric, the content coincides.

    Within a ‘very short period of time’ Localism will allow 3rd party contributors to complete the experience…the site will open up to ‘the public’ if you will, in true citizen journalism fashion…This has always been part of the original scope for the site, alas the rats in the basement can only run the wheel but so fast ;)

    I’ll be sure to ping you when Localism updates…as far as Jons prediction…he’ll have to answer for himself :)

  • http://www.thexbroker.com JeffX

    “As long as Localism is run mostly by Realtors, this vision is pure fantasy.”

    Astutely insightful as usual Rob.

    Currently all content on Localism is generated from within ActiveRain by its members, tagged and syndicated out at their opt-in/check-box request. Since AR is real estate professional centric, the content coincides.

    Within a ‘very short period of time’ Localism will allow 3rd party contributors to complete the experience…the site will open up to ‘the public’ if you will, in true citizen journalism fashion…This has always been part of the original scope for the site, alas the rats in the basement can only run the wheel but so fast ;)

    I’ll be sure to ping you when Localism updates…as far as Jons prediction…he’ll have to answer for himself :)

  • http://iciclecreekrealestate.com/ Geordie Romer | Leavenworth WA

    Rob – great article and insight. I too am guilty of abusing Localism. I often don’t even bother to recycle posts, instead I just use it as a reminder to folks that there is another hyperlocal blog and it is somewhere else (with bulleted links to recent articles).

    When I read this in my feed reader I assumed it was an article from Matt McGee’s http://www.hyperlocalblogger.com/
    which has been tackling this issue in depth.

    I like the way Seattle’s King5 TV has set up a hyper-local aggregator with their http://citizenrain.com site. It brings together posts from lots of citizen bloggers in a coherent way that localism doesn’t quite pull off.

  • http://iciclecreekrealestate.com Geordie Romer | Leavenworth WA

    Rob – great article and insight. I too am guilty of abusing Localism. I often don’t even bother to recycle posts, instead I just use it as a reminder to folks that there is another hyperlocal blog and it is somewhere else (with bulleted links to recent articles).

    When I read this in my feed reader I assumed it was an article from Matt McGee’s http://www.hyperlocalblogger.com/
    which has been tackling this issue in depth.

    I like the way Seattle’s King5 TV has set up a hyper-local aggregator with their http://citizenrain.com site. It brings together posts from lots of citizen bloggers in a coherent way that localism doesn’t quite pull off.

  • http://robhahn.wordpress.com/ -Rob

    Thanks JeffX – great points all.

    As you know, I’m a fan of Localism as a concept; it is, however, a victim of human nature at the moment.

    What I would be very interested in watching is how the site evolves once it is opened to ‘the public’ fully in true citizen journalism fashion. Will the core membership that is currently posting to Localism continue to derive value from participation and sponsorship? Does Localism transform into something closer to a group blog by local residents, funded by realtors who want to sell them houses?

    All good topics for discussion in ATL, baby.

    -rsh

  • http://robhahn.wordpress.com/ -Rob

    Thanks Geordie –

    FWIW, I don’t know that I consider the way you and other realtors use Localism to be “an abuse”. It may simply be that what you guys get out of Localism ain’t the same thing that Jon and the folks at ActiveRain envisioned.

    But then, history is filled with examples of products that achieve success in a way totally different from the way their makers envisioned. Lightsticks come to mind. As does Botox.

    -rsh

  • Pingback: The Day: Questioning Commenters - The Local - Maplewood Blog - NYTimes.com

  • http://www.itkeepsyourunning.com/ Carolyn G-Tu

    There is a lot here to digest-personally I think both models are failing in their intent. The Times by censoring the comments and Localism by currently populating the site only through real estate industry. Active Rain confuses the issue with having agent blogs/outside blogs/localism – it will be interesting to see if they can attract people from outside the real estate industry to create content.

    I think for either model to work the focus needs to be on how to create a community-especially on a hyperlocal level – I’ve been considering quite a few ways this can be done – not even for the traffic it could bring to my real estate site, but for the trust and authority it could bring. If I were a more prolific writer (or if I had a staff) I would likely create a site that was very community oriented that only touched on real estate – the trick is how to get the community to participate. Almost need to find a way for the community to also take ownership in the site. If Localism were able to find a way to attract non real estate industry people they could possibly build this type of community. I don’t really see how this type of community would really be encouraged by a news media site. I look at my small town newspaper that is struggling for advertising dollars and has a very weak internet presence and wonder who should take up that slack in providing local content and deciding what is newsworthy.

  • http://www.itkeepsyourunning.com Carolyn G-Tu

    There is a lot here to digest-personally I think both models are failing in their intent. The Times by censoring the comments and Localism by currently populating the site only through real estate industry. Active Rain confuses the issue with having agent blogs/outside blogs/localism – it will be interesting to see if they can attract people from outside the real estate industry to create content.

    I think for either model to work the focus needs to be on how to create a community-especially on a hyperlocal level – I’ve been considering quite a few ways this can be done – not even for the traffic it could bring to my real estate site, but for the trust and authority it could bring. If I were a more prolific writer (or if I had a staff) I would likely create a site that was very community oriented that only touched on real estate – the trick is how to get the community to participate. Almost need to find a way for the community to also take ownership in the site. If Localism were able to find a way to attract non real estate industry people they could possibly build this type of community. I don’t really see how this type of community would really be encouraged by a news media site. I look at my small town newspaper that is struggling for advertising dollars and has a very weak internet presence and wonder who should take up that slack in providing local content and deciding what is newsworthy.

  • http://robhahn.wordpress.com/ -Rob

    Hi Carolyn – great to see you here.

    I think i would investigate local media blogs like Hoboken411, Baristanet, and Maplewood Online. Real estate certainly is a piece of the content, but those sites are operated by media people, not realtors.

    I just think real estate people have (a) laws and regulations that inhibit them, and (b) conflicts of interest business-wise to do a real job of becoming local media. Certainly community members can pick up that slack, but then the real estate piece becomes just one small section (much like our dead-tree newspapers today).

    Localism IS planning on rolling out a non-real estate involvement schema/module/whatever you call it. I’m very interested to see it.

    Your small town newspaper is struggling because of (a) changes in reader behavior, (b) changes in advertising ROI, and (c) too many folks with journalism degrees working there. I think local news will become (at some point) a crowd-sourced affair with no one deciding what is newsworthy. Those gatekeepers do a very poor job overall — look at the New York Times.

    -rsh

  • http://www.movoto.com/ Movato

    Hyper local content could lead to better monetization because of very targeted advertising

  • http://www.movoto.com/ Movato

    Hyper local content could lead to better monetization because of very targeted advertising

  • http://www.movoto.com/ Movato

    Hyper local content could lead to better monetization because of very targeted advertising

  • http://robhahn.wordpress.com -Rob

    Thanks JeffX – great points all.

    As you know, I’m a fan of Localism as a concept; it is, however, a victim of human nature at the moment.

    What I would be very interested in watching is how the site evolves once it is opened to ‘the public’ fully in true citizen journalism fashion. Will the core membership that is currently posting to Localism continue to derive value from participation and sponsorship? Does Localism transform into something closer to a group blog by local residents, funded by realtors who want to sell them houses?

    All good topics for discussion in ATL, baby.

    -rsh

  • http://robhahn.wordpress.com -Rob

    Thanks Geordie –

    FWIW, I don’t know that I consider the way you and other realtors use Localism to be “an abuse”. It may simply be that what you guys get out of Localism ain’t the same thing that Jon and the folks at ActiveRain envisioned.

    But then, history is filled with examples of products that achieve success in a way totally different from the way their makers envisioned. Lightsticks come to mind. As does Botox.

    -rsh

  • http://robhahn.wordpress.com -Rob

    Hi Carolyn – great to see you here.

    I think i would investigate local media blogs like Hoboken411, Baristanet, and Maplewood Online. Real estate certainly is a piece of the content, but those sites are operated by media people, not realtors.

    I just think real estate people have (a) laws and regulations that inhibit them, and (b) conflicts of interest business-wise to do a real job of becoming local media. Certainly community members can pick up that slack, but then the real estate piece becomes just one small section (much like our dead-tree newspapers today).

    Localism IS planning on rolling out a non-real estate involvement schema/module/whatever you call it. I’m very interested to see it.

    Your small town newspaper is struggling because of (a) changes in reader behavior, (b) changes in advertising ROI, and (c) too many folks with journalism degrees working there. I think local news will become (at some point) a crowd-sourced affair with no one deciding what is newsworthy. Those gatekeepers do a very poor job overall — look at the New York Times.

    -rsh