The New York Times enjoys an enviable reputation as one of the world’s great and trend-setting newspapers, so it was surprising when they recently announced that their hyperlocal features launched in 2009 were going to be shuttered as the publisher found the entire experiment to not be worthwhile. This decision can impact the entire hyperlocal editorial industry, as if a journalistic monolith with the resources of The Gray Lady can’t make a go of it, what chance does any other large media company?
The NYT Can’t Provide the Resources to Cover Kittens Stuck in Trees
The most significant conclusion is that hyperlocal coverage is best left to the individual bloggers and micro-journalism entities. It simply is not practical for a newspaper that has built up a reputation for global and national coverage to be able to dedicate the resources and staff necessary to cover every instance of the fire department being called to get a kitten out of a tree. Journalism is a very labor intensive process and in order to be able to duplicate a major media company’s widespread primary news coverage at the strictly hyperlocal level would require such a ballooning of the payroll that it would cripple the entire organization.
The Hyperlocal Reader Demands Quality, although There’s No Money to Pay for It
The main problem with this approach is that in order to ensure that the hyperlocal coverage is of the standard expected from primary news organizations, the articles must be researched and written by trained, experienced journalists, and there is a great paucity of this type of professional in hyperlocal coverage.
The essential reason is salary. The market for hyperlocal is so tiny that the scale of income generation to pay for it becomes insignificant. While a full-page ad in the New York Times can cost upwards of $100,000, those billings cannot be imposed on hyperlocal coverage – where the advertiser is much more likely to be a Ma & Pa corner store.
With much lower salaries come equivalent skillsets. Any professional journalist who is worth an industry standard salary is not going to be satisfied with the relative pittance to be found in the hyperlocal sector. Thus the dichotomy of hyperlocal coverage is revealed: The reader expects professional journalism from their hyperlocal news provider, ignoring the hard facts that there simply isn’t the money present to pay for it.
A Volunteer Journalist Is More Likely to Skew Coverage to Their Own Viewpoint
However, there are some activities that news organizations of any size can implement in order to provide at least a modicum of hyperlocal coverage for their geographic micro-markets.
Hyperlocal news providers can lower the barriers to community participation and make a variety of technologies available to those who would cover the news on the micro-scale, such as encouraging volunteers to attend local functions and report on them via tweets, social network posts and the upload of photographs onto the site. The flip side of this facilitation is the troubling question of journalistic quality and standards. A volunteer is much more likely to skew coverage of divisive or controversial issues towards their own individual perspective, (in fact this can be a primary driving motivation for volunteering to provide the coverage in the first place) and this has the effect of diminishing or totally obviating the value of the coverage.
The objectivity and balanced tone of any article seems to have a direct relationship to the amount paid to the reporter, which once again brings up the fundamental shortcomings of the hyperlocal business model when it comes to advertising income and the respective salaries it facilitates.
Hyperlocal sites can also rely strongly on daily email newsletters to diffuse their content, as the New York Times’ former associate managing editor Jim Schachter stated: “If people will opt into letting it into their mailbox, you are so far down the path of making them loyal audience members. The things you can lead them to do once they’ve made that choice are just immense.” Perhaps the future of hyperlocal coverage may not lie with major media companies, but within the email inbox!