Rethinking The Local Paper

This is my local newspaper, called The Villager. If you live in Greenwich Village, NYC, you probably read The Villager. But there are several problems with The Villager (which was voted NY State’s "Best Community Newspaper").

First, it’s only updated once a week. And that’s true of the website as well. Fortunately today is the day they update, so if you click thru, you might get fresh content. And then there is the problem that over half of the stories are about things that don’t really impact or interest me. Steven Johnson calls this the "pothole paradox." That pothole in front of your home or apartment is a big deal to you, but your friend four blocks over couldn’t care less. And The Villager is barely scraping by living off local advertising that is moving fast and furious to Adwords and other forms of web advertising.

That is why I am so interested in local media, aka hyperlocal. Today, there are not one but three stories on Techmeme about a new hyperlocal service called Everyblock. Everyblock was built by people who did the chicagocrime.org service and is backed by a $1mm grant from The Knight Foundation. If for some reason you don’t want to go check out Everyblock, I’ll tell you what it is. Everyblock crawls a number of local resources like Yelp, Flickr, and possibly most importantly local government databases. Through Everyblock, you can subscribe to all building permits, restaurant inspections, and liquor licenses issued in your neighborhood. That’s pretty useful.

Many of you know that our firm, Union Square Ventures, is an investor in Outside.in, co-founded and run by Steven Johnson (the pothole paradox guy). Techcrunch calls outside.in a competitor of EveryBlock. I think collaborator is more like it. It’s going to take more than one company to rebuild the local newspaper from the ground up.

In fact, the first thing we all need to understand about "hyperlocal" is that this is going to be a long slog. It’s simple enough to put up a search field and ask for a neighborhood name or zip code and return a result. outside.in has been doing that for over a year now. Here’s that result for my neighborhood. Here’s EveryBlock’s result for the same search. You get two very different results, because the services focus on different kinds of local content. But even so, the results are not that compelling. YET.

The thing that has to happen and will happen, I just don’t know when, is that we are going to program our community newspapers ourselves. Like my post this morning about Pier 40. Which by the way is at the top of outside.in’s result page for my zip code. Nice. I didn’t do anything to make that happen.

But there just aren’t that many people producing hyperlocal content in a form that is organizable into a new version of a community newspaper. Sure there are many people posting photos and more and more of them will get a geotag as we get gps cameras and better web/camera integration. But look at Everyblock’s photo page. Where is the relevance? Why do I care about the photo taken 10 blocks away from my house?

And there isn’t enough of an incentive to produce hyperlocal content. If a mom (or dad) could blog for two hours every morning between dropping off her kids and going shopping and make $1000-2000/month doing that, we would see a lot more content getting produced. And who better to blog about the high school soccer game, the PTA meeting the night before, or the controversy about the new supermarket coming to town?

And where are her stories going to get picked up? What if they could get picked up by the big city paper that everyone in her town reads. That’s why I am so excited about Outside.in’s effort to get it’s neighborhood pages and buzzmaps onto newspaper websites all over the country. Here are outside.in’s buzzmaps on the Washington Post website. When the mom finds out that her stories can and will get onto the Washington Post, that might change things. And when the traffic that outside.in, everyblock, yourstreet, the washington post, and hopefully a host of other newspapers drive to her blog turns into tens of thousands of visits a month, there will be a hyperlocal ad network knocking on her door to take her inventory and send her that check for $1000-2000/month for her work. If you don’t think that’s possible, check out my favorite mom’s blog traffic.

That’s why this is a collaborative effort. We need everyone and everything we can throw at this problem to make this happen. We need every newspaper in the country to embrace platforms like outside.in and everyblock and showcase their content on the newspaper’s pages. We need to find these local voices and amplify them. And we need to attract more of them. And we need to monetize them for their efforts.

And then we will have a new kind of community newspaper, one that we program and we read and we comment on. It’s coming. I just don’t know when.