A Hyperlocal Post-Mortem: Lessons Learned from InJersey
Last week I made the heart-wrenching decision to stop publishing InJersey, a network of hyperlocal websites that I’d founded two years ago. It was particularly difficult because I’d grown to love the community of folks that supported our sites — from the site editors under the employ of Gannett to the community contributors to the far-flung partners and champions of the local-local journalism. To help get through the mourning period, I penned a post for Street Fight (reprinted below), a site that has emerged as the blog of record for the hyperlocal industry. The comments that were posted to both it, as well those on a fantastic article by Mallary Jean Tenore on Poynter (posted more or less simultaneously) and a follow-up Street Fight post, are a testament to how strong and uplifting this community has been. Thanks in part to this kind of camaraderie, and the promise that community-centric journalism still holds, you can rest assured that InJersey won’t be my last foray into the world of hyperlocal.
When we made the decision this week to shutter InJersey.com — a network of hyperlocal sites across the garden state that I helped build, nurture, and raise like a child — my biggest fear was that the effort would be branded a failure. In the age of Twitter, I was braced for the #epicfail hashtag. It came instead via Slate, in the form of a Jack Shafer missive, where he lumped my baby in as yet another vote of no-confidence in a “hyperloco” business model:
“The hyperlocal cemetery—where Bayosphere; the Washington Post’s LoudounExtra; Allbritton’s TBD; Backfence; and the New York Times’ New Jersey experiment, “The Local” are taking the dirt nap—got a new tenant today, as Gannett folded hyperlocal venture InJersey.”
The truth is that my colleagues and I viewed InJersey as a hugely successful experiment. Lest that sound like empty spin, here are the facts: We launched two years ago on a shoestring budget, and grew to 17 town blogs, 2,259 members, and 90 community contributors. Though we were never able to afford a full-time staff, we recruited site editors from the stable of reporters across the Gannett New Jersey newspapers — the Asbury Park Press, Home News Tribune, Courier News, Daily Record, Courier-Post, and The Daily Journal — who built up a tremendous online community. Some town sites, such as Freehold InJersey, earned as many as 65,000 pageviews and 47,000 unique users in a month. We sold sponsorships onto the town sites, and advertisers were thrilled with the response. We were profitable.
Let me repeat that: We were profitable.
But, alas, we never generated enough revenue to pay for a full time reporting (or sales) staff, and given the contractions of the newspapers (including a particularly tough round of layoffs last week), we couldn’t sustain the effort.
Still, as I said in my parting post on InJersey, even though we decided to suspend publishing, we did so knowing full well that the larger hyperlocal movement that we belonged to is as vibrant and innovative as ever. I’d hate for this act of infanticide to be minimized into a footnote on the wikipedia “hyperlocal” page. And so I want to share with you some of the major lessons I learned from InJersey.
1. Build Cheaply. Shortly after launching, Jeff Jarvis asked me to speak about the tools needed to launch a hyperlocal site at his New Business Models for News conference (or as I liked to call it, “HyperCamp”). I told the audience there that anyone can launch a killer community site for a few thousand dollars. Most can and do spend next to nothing. To drive home this point, I compared the budget to build InJersey ($3,720) with the cost of the movie “Paranormal Activity” ($11,000). It can be done.
We used WordPress for our CMS and BuddyPress for messaging, community registration, collaboration, and more. TribLocal uses much the same approach with their network. I have tremendous admiration for the kind of custom CMS that Patch has engineered — I’ve seen it; it’s impressive — but this doesn’t yield much of an advantage, IMHO. As hyperlocal swami Mark Potts says “It’s not about technology, it’s not about journalism, it’s not about whizbang Web 2.0 features. It’s about bringing community members together to share what they know about what’s going on around town.”
2. Recruit Via Twitter. I’m still so thankful for the Twitter DM gods for sending me Colleen Curry. She contacted me out of the blue, back when I was putting the finishing touches on our first WordPress theme, asking if we needed any writers. Luckily, we were able to bring her on to not only cover the blog, but also as a reporter for the Asbury Park Press, and she’s been an animal ever since — covering town hall, school boards, breaking news, dangerous intersections, and even stray turkeys. (Story of her hiring, in her words.) Her Freehold site was our top performing hyperlocal. At the same time we shuttered InJersey, I’m proud to say she was promoted to become USA Today’s New Jersey correspondent (#silverlining!).
3. Partner with Everyone. This may sound obvious, but I’m still surprised at how many hyperlocal sites start off all on their lonesome. We actively reached out to other startups (SeeClickFix, Outside.In, PaperG), local groups (United Way, Rotary, Libraries), and residents (liberals, conservatives, high-schoolers, old timers).
What made our approach to hyperlocal different than others (at least when we launched) was that we offered open registration and the ability for anyone to publish. Yes, we had our fair share of off-the-wall and inflammatory posts, but we took them down, contacted the contributor, and coached them on how to revise. It wasn’t a perfect system, but there was a great deal less friction than the Times’s “The Local” faced by editing every contributor’s post via email. We’d hoped to have 50% of our posts generated by the community, and while we only got half-way there, it wasn’t for lack of trying.
4. Local Advertisers Won’t Self Serve (but they will support local coverage). Like so many digital startups, we’d hoped that tools like PaperG’s Flyerboard (also looked at AdReady and AdTaily) would give advertisers the tools to easily build, schedule, and purchase their ads all by themselves. Yeah, didn’t happen. That said, there was definitely an appetite among local advertisers to support the kind of reporting and coverage we were providing. Still loved using Flyerboard, we just had to sell them, create the ads, and schedule it all ourselves.
5. Maps are eye candy. No more, no less. We kind of fell in love with Patch’s first map treatment on their homepage. So much so that we built a WordPress plugin to ape it. Only when we went live did we realize nobody was clicking on it. Next we tried Outside.In‘s full-page maps and widgets, which were even cooler — they automatically tagged our content with geo-locations based on contextual clues. Amazing magic trick. Alas, nobody clicked on them either.
(I suspect that the value of geo-tagging content and location will grow as we find new ways to integrate it with a mobile experience — e.g. presenting you with news and deals based on where you’re standing at that moment. Now that Outside.In is a part of AOL/Patch, I’m sure their technology will be put to good use.)
6. Aggregation and syndication are a smoke screen. During a previous round of layoffs, we attempted to automate the posting of content to some of our sites in Morris County. The idea being to aggregate other blogs and syndicate stories from dailyrecord.com, the sister newspaper site. It was almost immediately apparent that we’d ripped the soul out of the sites, and they quickly became ghost towns. Sure, they had “content” — and thanks to SEO a trickle of traffic — but not a whole lot of living, breathing residents.
7. Display advertising isn’t enough. We simply didn’t see enough local advertising to ever make our sites totally self-sufficient on display dollars. Howard Owens, prepare your flamethrower. I know that he claims to be able to generate upwards of $100-$150k per year on local advertising in The Batavian, and if this is true, my hat is off to him. But most sites are going to need to great creative, and there are plenty of other revenue streams that hyperlocals can employ. Local-local Daily Deals is one idea that has, of course, been discussed. Also promising: The sort of conference that NewWest.net operates; classes like the kind that we co-hosted with the Citizens Campaign; and commercial businesses like Brownstoner’s Brooklyn Flea. In fact, one of the most promising side-businesses just might be news cafes. Which brings us to …
8. Coffee shops are a natural hyperlocal nexus. Many hyperlocal editors work out of Starbucks and neighborhood joints already, but the aforementioned Colleen Curry took the bold step of opening up a bureau in Zebu Forno in Freehold. Alright, it was really just a computer set up with a “The Journalist Is In” sign atop it. But it proved to be a brilliant way to raise awareness of the site and a place to recruit contributors and interview subjects. We didn’t recruit as many folks as we would have liked, but there’s little doubt it raised our profile in town. The Winnipeg Free Press was so inspired by it — and other similar initiatives — that they opened up their own News Cafe this year. Even though some have tried and failed at this model, like Nase Adresa (“Our Address”) in Czech Republic, they never went so far as to actually merge their newsrooms with their cafes.
9. Host the conversation on Facebook. If I could do it all over again, InJersey’s comments, login, and social features would all be rebuilt on Facebook plugins. That’s not to say you should make the drastic move of ditching your website, like Rockville Central. But there’s no need to build your own social network, as we foolishly attempted.
10. Live in the town. File this under “do as we say, not as we do.” For the most part our reporters didn’t live in the towns they covered. Patch, on the other hand, makes it a requirement that you live where you report. Patch’s way is better.
Back when I was prototyping the site in the summer of 2009 with my colleague, Whitney Rhodes (now at Patch), I took great inspiration from Mark Potts’s post-mortem on Backfence (a site whose cemetery I’d be honored to share). His insights guided us in how we approached the site — both from an editorial and community-building standpoint. I hope this will do the same for future hyperlocal entrepreneurs. If we must dub such sites as failures, I just hope we can also see things as Henry Ford did: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”