Hyperlocal sites have many faces

As the first anniversary of the Rapidian, Grand Rapids Michigan’s hyperlocal newspaper, drew near, publisher Laurie Cirivello wrote that there is no official definition for the term hyperlocal.

But hyperlocal is a word that has permeated newsrooms and the media landscape for the last two years. So what is hyperlocal?

“Hyperlocal is a movement,” Cirivello said. “It’s a renewed focus on the importance of small stories in a geographical region and the acknowledgement that readers can be both consumers and providers of that information.”

Sounds simple, but there’s another definition.

“I would describe it as the community, the roots of the community,” Brian Feldt, editor at the new Bolingbrook, Ill., Patch.com site said. “Obviously at first glance you think village board, the board meetings, but hyperlocal is going past that.”

To what extent? Is hyperlocal nothing more than a new buzzword for old-fashioned journalism — a harking back to a time when “housewives” sent in copy ranging from school lunch programs to PTA meetings?  Remember the old axiom that states that all news is local, is that what hyperlocal is?

“Yes,” Cirivello said. “Personally, I think that’s the only competitive advantage [that] local media can possibly have. You used to go to your paper to find out what was going on everywhere. You can’t do that now, not with the Internet. Newspapers found themselves competing with the New York Times and CNN.”

Hyperlocal is hard to define, but Web sites are popping up everywhere and with completely different business plans and goals. Sites such as The Rapidian are not-for-profit, depend on grant money and citizen ownership, they don’t use traditional journalists and believe they exist to provide citizens of their city a view of their city that they can’t get from traditional media.

On the other hand, operations like Patch.com is backed by AOL: The company exists to make a profit and believes that the best way to achieve that profit is by bringing in traditional journalists, embedding them in the community they serve and providing professional journalism for small or suburban communities.

Here’s a look at two different hyperlocal sites and how they operate:

The Rapidian

The Rapidian turned one on Sept. 15, 2010. That doesn’t mean that the people who run The Rapidian are brand new.

“We are a community media center,” Cirivello said. “We’re 30 years old. We started with public radio, television, non-profit media and technical support organization for our community.”

Then the economy took a bite out of the local media.

“The newspaper shrunk and we were affected,” Cirivello said. “And the Knight Foundation had a program that offered matching funds for communities.”

Cirivello and her group went to work to build The Rapidian. A key ally for them was the local media.

“We never put ourselves out there as an alternative to traditional media,” Cirivello said. “We had meetings with all the media organizations and told them we were going to build this thing and asked them if there were things we could do that would provide help and not just competition. We took that open approach from day one. And we’ve got some real champions from the traditional media for our organization.”

Not everyone though.

“I do remember one television that said if it were news, we’d already know about it,” Cirivello said.

The result has been a site that emphasizes the events that happen in Grand Rapids. The emphasis is on the communities that exist within Grand Rapids.

“We work with a lot of lower income communities and folks who are marginalized for many problems,” Cirivello said. “You go to one neighborhood and the only time they get mentioned is if someone got shot or had a house burn down and we don’t get a lot of news about them from other points of view.”

The Rapidian won’t win any awards for hard-hitting journalism. They don’t have many traditional journalists and don’t plan on hiring any soon.

“Will we be hiring reporters? I don’t know; at this point we’re not,” Cirivello said. “But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need the Grand Rapids Press. I think it’s going to be the difference between a math tutor and a master teacher.

“You can be a tutor without being a professional teacher.”

Patch – Bolingbrook, Ill.

Feldt is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Springfield where he received a master’s in Public Affairs Reporting. He got his undergraduate degree from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His career path is similar to that of many recent college graduates who find themselves working at smaller community daily newspapers or operations like Patch.

“It was a job getting out of school,” Feldt said. “I stumbled out of school and I went through the interview process, got hired and then went through training.”

The interview process was like any interview process. The training consisted of Feldt learning how to work the software necessary to run the Patch site in Bolingbrook and an overview of the Patch philosophy, which is get the local news for your community and give the community a chance to answer back. Feldt quickly became convinced of the future of Patch.

“The thing is, Patch does things I think will work,” he said.

Feldt believes Patch.com is unique. It’s bringing old-fashioned journalism to communities with a new way of presenting that information.

“There’s more energy, more belief in the product that we’re pushing here,” Feldt said. “In a small daily you have a smaller population. At Patch, we have a positive energy and a positive vibe. The newness and uniqueness sets it apart.”

The journalism is community journalism. Feldt covers everything from school board and city council meetings to middle school sports and community events.

“The other day I was at a middle school softball game and then later that night I was at a local wine tasting event,” Feldt said. “It was a good chance to get to know a lot of people who didn’t work in an official capacity.
“We’re still new. We still run into people who don’t know exactly what Patch is.”

Patch is popping up everywhere in suburban Chicago. The idea is to blanket the suburbs with journalists who will cover what’s happening inside that specific community.

“People want to see what’s happening in their town,” Feldt said. “People look forward to it.”

Providing trained journalists gives Patch.com an edge, Feldt believes.

“Being professional journalists gives us credibility,” Feldt said. “We have the professional standards and ethics that we live up to and that helps us work in each community we work in.”

Competing views

Both of these types of online publication have pros and cons. The Rapidian’s approach is grassroots and uses those in the community, but it doesn’t need true journalists. At the same time, the Patch.com model uses traditional media but it comes with a corporate tag.

“I’m skeptical about that working,” Cirivello said. “They say they’re deploying editors from across the country, but it’s run out of New York. The Rapidian is locally owned and I’m hopeful that people are smart enough to know that it’s not local.”

Feldt disagrees.

“I’m the Bolingbrook local editor,” Feldt said. “I control and manage the site and the daily operations. I am working a local beat.  I’m not doing anything in New York or LA, I’m not doing anything other than Bolingbrook, Illinois.”

Cirivello has some advice on how to build a hyperlocal.

“The first thing you do is not try to build it and hope the community will come,” she said. “We involved people and stakeholders right up front. And the community did take ownership right away.”

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