The experiment began three years ago. Someone put thought to action and blogged about the neighborhood. It was a strange new hobby, one fueled by the pursuit of journalistic artistry and civic duty.
One year into it, someone else mentioned the idea of capitalizing on the work. “You’re on to something, so why not make money at it,” that someone said. Thus, years two and three of the experiment were spent in pursuit of profit, or at least solvency.
But by the third year, this experiment in hyperlocal news was a bust. The blogger was burned out, shit broke and calling it quits. Sure, readers loved the publication and what it did for the community, but the business model just wasn’t working. Thus, the plug was pulled.
The experiment was called The Silver Spring Penguin, an entrepreneurial hyperlocal news site serving downtown Silver Spring, Md. It was performed concurrently (though with less injury to the bank account) in Arlington, Va., with Steve Thurston’s publication, The Buckingham HeraldTrib.
Neither Thurston nor I had intentions of getting into the business of hyperlocal news. Still, there we were, praying The Washington Post or another large media company would buy us out, or that the economy would turn and drive advertisers our way. Neither scenario happened. Moreover, Thurston and I were exhausted. Both publications folded in January.
But the demise of these hyperlocal news sites does not mean the end of hyperlocal news. The reporting and community interaction these publications employed worked well, but the business models — profit through either acquiescence or an unrealistic economic shift — were complete crap.
The fundamental problem was this: The publications addressed the need for quality reporting on a neighborhood level, something the regional publications overlooked. But in placing all entrepreneurial energy into building a reliable news source, we didn’t consider building a sustainable news source. D’oh!
So what’s the independent entrepreneurial journalist supposed to do now?
A few hyperlocal business models are out there, most spawned by larger media companies looking to tap into local advertisers. Another model emphasizes soft news content or aggregation to attract advertisers wary of hot-button topics and the inflammatory readers’ comments that come with them.
My goal as a newly unemployed entrepreneurial journalist is to explore these models and other possibilities for creating sustainable hyperlocal news. But this blog will also examine editorial practices and access to information that affect independent reporters.
Wish me luck. I’m going to need it.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Paul Lowry.
Correction: The post originally indicated that HeraldTrib editor Steve Thurston was “shit broke.” Subsequent to publication, Thurston commented that he was not shit broke and was “doing fine” (lucky bastard). Therefore, the post was tweaked to indicate that I alone am shit broke. — JD (Jan 24, 2010)