Feb 16, 2011

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

Mmm, Iowa! Where the wind comes sweeping down the plain. The Buckeye State. Birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. And the traditional starting gate for US presidential campaigns.

Every four years, journalists descend upon Iowa, stalking would-be leaders of the free world as they shake hands, kiss babies and eat their weight in pancakes. However, the upcoming 2012 campaign season promises to have a hyperlocal twist to it. Arianna Huffington, newly appointed overlord to AOL’s content-producing properties, plans to use Patch.com editors to cover the election on a “granular” level, she told The Washington Post.

Huffington’s plan is genius: employ an army of already-embeds who won’t need lodging or driving directions, and let them lay the foundation for AOL’s larger, search engine-savvy campaign coverage. “We will have thousands and thousands of people covering the election. Covering the Republicans. Covering the Democrats. Just being transparent about it,” she said.

And that’s when my heart sank. Reporting on elections can be a major drain on hyperlocal news outlets, especially those with limited human resources. So how the hell are independent hyperlocalists supposed to compete with myriad minions of The Huffington Patch?

First, they can beat Patch to the punch. Indie hyperlocalists in states with high-profile primaries (Iowa and New Hampshire, for example), as well as those in the convention cities of Charlotte and Tampa, should immediately contact larger news outlets and promote themselves as location experts. If AOL can use its hypothetical Des Moines Patch editor (more likely, someone from its Seed content farm) to blanket the Iowa caucuses, surely The New York Times and CNN can pay Cedar Rapids‘ independent hyperlocalist to work the beat.

(Incidentally, hyperlocalists from Super-Duper Tuesday states are not shit out of luck when it comes to milking the campaign coverage. They can similarly promote themselves to NPR or some other large outlet as experts in their beat’s hot topic — unemployment, gay marriage, the effect of prolonged deployment on military families, whatever.)

Notice my use of the word “pay.” The time and energy required to cover a campaign deserve appropriate compensation from whomever is doing the hiring. National exposure will not fuel a hyperlocal news outlet while its resources are diverted to the campaign trail.

To earn that living wage, independent hyperlocalists must offer coverage that encompasses more than just the who, what and where. The material must deliver a distinct local flavor and offer unique insight into how political events and the populace interact. This connection with place, and the ability to drop a reader smack in the middle of it, will distinguish the independent hyperlocalist from a Patch editor or embedded big-media reporter.

Ultimately, if a hyperlocal news site can’t beat Patch’s campaign coverage, it should join it — sort of. Local Patch sites likely will create RSS (syndication) feeds for their campaign stories, which can then stream onto a hyperlocal news site’s sidebar. Thus, the independent hyperlocal site offers its readers a portal to political coverage without having to create content.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Carl Wycoff.

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