Hyperlocal news sites have been popping up a lot lately, especially with Patch.com’s expansion, as a possible alternative to newspapers’ sagging revenues and audience. The American Journalism Review wrote in its April/May 2007 issue stated: “Generally a hyperlocal news site (also known as a local-local or microsite) is devoted to the stories and minutiae of a particular neighborhood, ZIP code or interest group within a certain geographic area.”
Some reporters are already concerned that hyperlocal sites are creating conflicts of interest for journalists.
Colleen Curry, for example, blogged on Red Bank Red Head April 26 that as an employee of a small paper she’s found she is constantly balancing many roles – journalist, manager, business person – and that the business roles have affected her objectivity as a reporter.
Curry is a writer and photographer for The Asbury Park Press, the largest of the New Jersey Gannett papers. She also develops hyperlocal Web sites for Gannett in New Jersey. As StinkyJournalism reported May 3, New Jersey Gannett papers recently came under fire by the Society for Professional Journalists for their use of articles on the New Jersey Devils written by a Devils employee, Eric Marin.
“Without even noticing it, I’ve gone from a neutral reporter to one with clear business motivations: I want more page views, more readership, more ad dollars, more money,” Curry wrote. “Because my ‘success’ at this job depends not on my writing a really great city hall story but instead launching a really successful small business, my motivations are totally different from that of a traditional reporter, and that complicates things – including ethics – quite a bit.”
She wrote that she picked journalism in lieu of other English-related professions and studies because it “always seemed a pretty neutral” position. “The journalist could – to some extent – remain apart from the system of selling and just report,” Curry wrote.
Other journalists encouraged Curry via the comments section of her post. Howard Owens, editor of the Batavia, N.Y. news site The Batavian, wrote that Curry should just do the best and most honest journalism possible and that he thinks it “helps if you love your community.” Owens wrote at length in the comments section, including that “journalism needs to be about the community, not about conformity to profit motives and ‘best practices’ of the corporate office.”
“Elaine” wrote suggesting that “anyone running a hyperlocal needs not just journalism education but business education.”
The blog Fin O’Reilly wrote April 26 about Curry’s post and said that O’Reilly thought “the gap (Curry) cites between editorial and commercial in print is a lot narrower than (Curry) suggests,” at least in the UK and Ireland. Also Fin O’Reilly noted that Curry’s problems are maybe not new but are important.
The Los Angeles Times blogged April 24 about Patch.com, AOL’s hyperlocal sites.
Patch is a “community-specific news and information platform dedicated to providing comprehensive and trusted local coverage for individual towns and communities,” according to its Web site. Tech Crunch reported March 2 that AOL has put $50 million into the expansion of Patch sites. At the time, Patch had 37 hyperlocal news sites in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut and California, and it planned to set up “hundreds” of sites.
“The job would be hard enough if Kersey only had to face the regular challenges of any starting journalist — building sources and writing with authority, for starters. But he’s also got to hire freelancers, edit copy, take pictures, record video, Tweet out news flashes and build a profile for what remains an almost unknown brand.”
Even though the Los Angeles Times noted the City University of New York’s graduate journalism school researched local Internet news revenues and found that the sites could work, can proper boundaries between advertising and journalism still work?
Can journalists maintain traditional firewalls between advertising and editorial and remain free of other conflicts of interest while trying to belong to and cater specifically to a small audience?
Tech Crunch noted April 24 that bloggers on Chicago Now are legally responsible for their posts because editors don’t proofread their work before it’s published.
But the story got a huge reaction and was spread via Reddit and Twitter. Media Spy reported April 27, that The Salisbury Journal’s editor Bill Browne said the story “smashed the record for the most page views for a single story on the paper’s website.” According to Media Spy, the story attracted more than 130,000 page views in less than a day’s time.
On April 26, the Salisbury Journal ran an update to the dog story, which noted how popular the snippet had become.
Maybe that shows that any pet story can be big news in a hyperlocal environment?