Hyperlocal: A History of Success Already

Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram drew some ire last week when he posted a story callinghyperlocal experiments online “a history of dismal failures.” (https://gigaom.com/2014/07/17/despite-a-history-of-dismal-failures-hyperlocal-news-continues-to-attract-believers/?go_commented=1#comment-1473169)



He even named names, including former Washington Post digital executive Jim Brady, who is developing a new hyperlocal initiative called bother.ly. Brady responded suggesting that the term “hyperlocal” has become so misunderstood and misused as to become meaningless (@jimbradysp).

“Failure” is a term thrown about quickly when online initiatives don’t make the kind of money legacy media organizations came to expect in the late 20th century. Annual profit margins and the return on investment then reached ridiculously high proportions compared with other businesses.

A look back at earlier forms of community journalism tell a different story about what journalism can be and what it can mean for journalists and communities.

Journalism can be measured more for its role in healthly civic discourse than for its super-profit business model. For most of its history journalism provided a decent living for journalists and owners by serving local community didcourse. Some owners did very well indeed. But others just made a good living and were leaders in their communities.

What made that model work journalism and community was shared history and shared projects. Community newspapers were integrated into their communities over many years. Journalists knew the feel of the community and what drove the community. They shared the community’s history and perspective.

But newspapers also were leaders because they shared goals of improving that history, building a better community. The best newspapers led discourse about how to solve community problems. They were change agents, but change agents with common values and aspirations for those communities. They were essential to both stability and community growth and change.

Twenty-first century, online versions of this idea have been called “hyperlocal” because the 20th century business model for journalism tended to drift from the local connection to history and growth as it sought bigger and bigger profits. The result was a steady erosion of the community connection, a steady decline in news credibility, and a steady alienation of journalists from readers and viewers.

Now comes this assessment of “hyperlocal”as failure. The metric and measure too often begins with profit and the business model rather than with the community connection. Community engagement is not achieved quickly and profits don’t show right away. Community is about building shared trust, shared understanding, a shared history, and a shared sense of aspiration. When those things come from outside the community and are imposed based first on a business plan to profitability, they miss the point of “hyperlocal.”

That does not mean that hyperlocal cannot be profitable. The community online model can support a good living. It can even be scaled up, as hyperlocal initiatives in several communities already have demonstrated.

But the media model should be driven by community discourse, community engagement, shared perspectives, and shared goals. The result will be shared understanding among those in the community and with those participating in the shared understanding of the community through the (hyper) local media for community discourse.

Community discourse, community engagement, and shared understanding should be the first measure of success for “hyperlocal.” When that is achieved, a comfortable living for journalists will follow.