Jan 27, 2014

At my signal, unleash hell.

Fight or Flight

The time is right to get my hyperlocal wheels in motion, to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk. My hyperlocal news website will take shape over the next few months, with an editorial focus on politics and policy in my neighborhood. I like politics. I eat it for breakfast. So why not.

But I keep in mind that this endeavor is ultimately a business, with an objective to break even in the first year and to attain profitability within the first three. I can live with that.

The first order of business is to deliver a product, and by that, I don’t necessarily mean editorial content. The product is people: readers who are engaged in our community, both off-line and online. Such an audience invests time, energy and money into the neighborhood, a quality that local sponsors and advertisers might find attractive. Those same readers are also potential subscribers, though I won’t cross that bridge on my business plan for at least one more year.

The least expensive and perhaps most effective way of building this online audience is through social media, namely Twitter. I can’t beat the ostensibly free platform, and even though many more people use Facebook, I’ve had better reader engagement via Twitter.

Twitter’s retweet function also allows me to serve as a portal of hyperlocal information without shifting my editorial focus away from its core. If another source wants to report on crime or restaurant openings in my hood, then I’m more than glad to rebroadcast that to my followers. Hitting the retweet button doesn’t take me away from tailing a city council member, yet the retweeted information keeps my publication (or its Twitter account) relevant.

Of course, Twitter isn’t my only game. There will be original content on my hyperlocal website soon enough, as well as face time in the community. Hopefully by this summer, my site will have enough of an audience for me to take the business into its next phase: revenue generation. I have a game plan for that, too.

Jan 6, 2014

A tweet, an ad, and then an embarassment


It started out with a simple tweet. Somewhere in the Twitterverse, A.O. Scott, film critic for The New York Times, was kicking it on his computer or mobile device and uttered this across the digital void:

You all keep fighting about Wolf of Wall St. and Am Hustle. I’m gonna listen to the Llewyn Davis album again. Fare thee well, my honeys.

No big whoop, right? Wrong.

Five days later, Scott’s venerated employer ran a full-page print ad paid for by CBS Films, which released the film Inside Llewyn Davis. The only copy on the ad (besides a “best picture” claim) was a truncated version of Scott’s tweet.

Quoting a favorable review in an advertisement is nothing new: “It was great! I loved it! I’m going to see it again and again!” But CBS Films ripped Scott’s quote from his Twitter account, a conversation thread outside of (though not unrelated to) his role at The Times.

Forget that CBS Films’ actions may have violated Twitter’s ban on using tweets in advertising. What the company did violated Scott’s brand as a journalist. And that’s what’s bothersome.

For me, Twitter allows a journalist to communicate directly with his readers, without the hindrance (or benefit) of an editor or corporate eyes. It’s where the journalist extends his voice beyond the confines of his employer’s, bounces around ideas, and builds a loyal following. That’s branding, and that’s what CBS Films trampled on.

I reserve a wag of my finger for The New York Times, which should have done more to preserve Scott’s brand and its own integrity so soon after laying out a game plan for native advertisements (or advertorials) in its publications. It should have known that the CBS Films ad would draw unfavorable attention to “a form that has bafflement at its very heart.”

That’s not to say that Scott intended to generate ad copy and revenue for The Times with his tweet. But The Times could have kept any perceived conflict on the shelf by refusing to run the ad.

If anyone can pull off native advertising with panache, it will be The New York Times, just as long as it keeps its nose clean and its employees’ tweets off the market.

Illustration courtesy of Flickr user Pete Simon.

Jun 10, 2013

Hello, rapidly expanding international news service. Will you be my friend?

Weather report on Al-JazeeraI don’t know jack shit about Qatar. Its location, its vernacular, what its people eat: lost on me. Chances are I’ll never set foot on Qatari soil, as I don’t like long plane rides and it sounds far away. I’m not even sure how to properly pronounce Qatar.

But there is one thing of which I’m sure: I love Qatari news service Al Jazeera. Love it, love it, love it! Love that it bought Al Gore’s Currents TV network and now plans to sneak into the homes of 49 million cable subscribers in the United States. And I love that it’s hiring as many as 800 people to run its news operations from 12 US cities. Love it!

The best part is that Al Jazeera’s US network won’t be just a funnel for its existing English-language programming, produced in downtown Doha. Instead, it will “look inward, covering domestic affairs more often than foreign affairs,” and is relying on American reporters to do it, according to The New York Times.

And really, what’s more inward, domestic and American than hyperlocal news? If a hyperlocal organization can package its neighborhood or town as a profile in larger, national concerns, then it just might open the door to a lucrative business partnership with Al Jazeera.

Got a hyperlocal newsroom in El Paso or Detroit? Hook Al Jazeera up with coverage of immigration, international trade and national security policies, all with a local angle. Creating content for a hyperlocal news site in the Raleigh-Durham area? Sell Al Jazeera on the impacts of scientific discoveries, federal research funding and student-loan debt on average North Carolinians.

Even if a hyperlocal news beat doesn’t have any perceived sex appeal (a silly notion, as all hyperlocal news is sexy), newsroom talent can be a selling point. As of press time, Al Jazeera was hiring editors and designers in digital and video content. If an existing newsroom can carry some of that workload on a contract basis, then a partnership is still possible.

In return, hyperlocal partners earn additional revenue and bragging rights, though the latter is a double-edged scimitar. Al Jazeera’s objectivity as a news service has been (and will continue to be) questioned, which can be a drag on any of its business partners. However, if a hyperlocal news outlet’s main audience is sympathetic or at least ambivalent to this issue, then the risk is minimal.

And if Al Jazeera isn’t the proper partner for a hyperlocal organization, there’s always the Anonymous News Network.

Related: Hello, 2012 presidential primary season. Will you be my friend?

Photo of Al Jazeera’s weather report courtesy of Flickr user John Kannenberg.

May 15, 2013

A flea grows in Brooklyn.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a meeting of the revenue minds at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in midtown Manhattan. Ten independent news publishers spilled their guts on how they made (or didn’t make) money flow into the newsroom. It was intense, man.

Light Classics

One of the big revenue stars there that day was Jonathan Butler, whose hyperlocal site Brownstoner has Brooklyn real estate covered from end to gentrified end. The website does alright for itself, Butler told attendees, generating revenue via display advertising, real estate classifieds and a business directory.

But the enterprise’s true cash cow, the one from which all milky goodness flows, is event production. There isn’t a weekend that goes by in New York City when millennials aren’t throwing money around Butler’s Brooklyn Flea or his foodie fan fest Smorgasburg. The events are so successful that Butler now spends most of his energy managing them, while his staff manages the Brownstoner site.

Chalk it up to Butler’s business savvy. He has a good grasp of his audience: young people with expendable income and a taste for all things vintage and locally made. He understands what his advertisers and sponsors expect: events that will draw the right crowds and infuse cash into local businesses. And he knows that consistency is key, from weekly schedules to the highly curated collection of vendors working each event.

I give major props to Butler for decoding the revenue mystery. But at the same time, I can’t help feeling that the news business in general is still in deep financial shit. Must it rely on producing entertainment in order to bankroll journalism? And at what point does this particular revenue stream become a distraction to the creation of news content?

Even Butler expressed that high attendance didn’t necessarily translate into increased readership. From a business standpoint, it probably doesn’t matter — revenue is revenue. And as a hyperlocalist, I like to think Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg have fostered a sense of community and identity among some Brooklyn residents. But as a journalist and publisher, I cringe at the thought of adding carnival barker to my duties.

The news business is a business — I get it. But I’d rather not neglect the news part of that equation.

Disclosure: Butler’s Brownstoner recently announced plans to expand its coverage into the borough of Queens, where I’m likely to develop my own hyperlocal news site.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user 12th St David.

Feb 24, 2011

Where hyperlocal news meets the “like” button

On Tuesday evening, I received a message via Facebook from Cynthia Cotte Griffiths, a friend and fellow hyperlocalist from Maryland. It was the kind of message that made me wince, smile and then slap my knee at her ingenuity.

First, the wince. Cotte Griffiths announced that she and her business partner, Brad Rourke, were pulling the plug on their Rockville (Md) Central news website. After three and a half years in publication, both had grown tired of juggling content creation and advertising sales, she told me. Furthermore, competition from Patch, another indie websitethe local print publication and the municipal government’s site made their reporting redundant, Rourke blogged.

Then came the smile. Rockville Central would live on as a news source through its Facebook page, where their fans were already gabbing about current events. With a combination of news aggregation and original reporting, “we can create a true community hub,” Cotte Griffiths wrote.

And then the knee slap. Even though Cotte Griffiths and Rourke won’t generate advertising revenue from their Facebook page, they can establish themselves as social-media experts with tabs on the local vibe. That can translate into serious revenue from social-media consulting, building an online presence for small businesses, nonprofit groups and even government agencies.

Then another knee slap. Facebook is already a mobile-friendly service, whether one uses its mobile website or a native (platform-specific) app. That gives the Rockville Central fan page greater reach without having to “mobilize” its own website or develop an expensive app. The technical witchcraft has already been done for them.

And still another knee slap. Cotte Griffiths and Rourke can take their social-media savvy onto Twitter, where they can generate revenue from sponsored tweets. Also, they can use the multimedia-heavy publishing platform Tumblr to build a portfolio of marketable stock photos or to publish original audio or video content, though Tumblr’s community of users is still small relative to Facebook and Twitter.

By the time I reached the closing salutations of Cotte Griffiths’ message, my knee was swollen from the slapping and I was swearing up a storm. (“Fucking genius!” came up a lot.) Sure, they’d have to stay ahead of the social-media curve in case some future service turns Facebook into MySpace. In the meantime, they can provide hyperlocal information, foster dialog among neighbors, and make bank as consultants.

One day after our Facebook exchange, the news of Rockville Central’s transition had made its way through Twitter. And by Wednesday evening, members of the Online News Association were talking about it at a mixer inside the offices of The New York Times. Some were intrigued, others were disappointed that local news would take this route.

I’m hitting the “like” button on this one.

Illustration courtesy of Flickr user Christopher S. Penn.