Wednesday, September 15, 2010

New York Times/NYU Hyperlocal Site: Will News Ever Get Local Right?

With all of the high-visibility media types coming out of New York University's journalism programs, you'd figure that a collaboration between NYU and The New York Times to develop a hyperlocal Web site for news in Manhattan's East Village would knock your socks off. Unfortunately, while the announced result of this collaboration, The Local East Village, is not the worst attempt at hyperlocal journalism ever to come along, it certainly could have gone further to engage both its audiences and marketers in that vibrant Manhattan neighborhood..

The LEV is in essence a blog with some nice integration of social media content from Twitter, Flickr, Vimeo and Facebook and a blogroll integrated into the sidebar of the blog. Blog content can be submitted by community members, who can pitch stories to the editorial desk of the LEV or choose existing assignments from its "virtual assignment desk." Shake all of that great stuff together and you should have a hot online publication, right? 

Well, maybe in time, but so far the outlook isn't so promising. The overall look of the LEV is about as drab and corporate as anything that you could imagine coming out of the NYT "grey lady" up in Midtown. The most lively content extracted from social media services is shoved down on the sidebar under a lot of blah-de-blah words from the editors. The blog entries are decent enough, capturing comments from local candidates for office in the recent primary elections, coverage of a local Salman Rushdie talk at NYU. And that's about it, so far. Pretty thin stuff. In the meantime, one has to ask the key and burning question: what dog do local merchants have in this fight? Especially in a neighborhood like the East Village, which is chockablock with unique local shops and trendy merchandise, there's nothing to speak of from or about the commercial sector in this trial publication.

I don't mean to come down hard on J-school folks who are trying to get their feet wet in online technologies, but given the partnerships and the visibility that this effort has, you would have hoped for a lot more. There are a few missing ingredients that other reasonably successful efforts in hyperlocal journalism point to that should be considered in the Local East Village's efforts:
  • Keep it short, sweet and visual on the home page. The articles in the LEV are fine enough, but they are relatively long for the front page of a blog, not frequent enough. Take a look at a good local blog like Westport Now to get a sense of how to build a lede with good graphics that can break to the more detailed view of a story.
  • Local news is personal news. Embrace local personalities. The East Village is filled with more characters than a Sunday comics section. What are these people like? Who can tell their stories well? Which one of them are telling those stories well already? Don't let traditional views of "important journalism" get in the way of telling really home-spun stories of local people. Lots of them, preferably. Mainstreet Connect properties such as The Daily Westport do a pretty good job of this, though not with the greatest layout.
  • Help merchants to be story tellers and relationship-builders. Certainly traditional advertising is not to be ignored in local media, but the key branding that most local businesses have is their ability to have strong personal relationships with their neighborhood clients. Any "virtual assignment desk" will be incomplete without people assigned to helping merchants to tell their own stories to their community. Does this blur the lines between traditional journalism and ad sales? Sure, and such content deserves its own treatment accordingly. But if hyperlocal journalism is to succeed commercially, it has to embrace its role as a facilitator of relationships between local buyers and sellers as community peers. See - again - Mainstreet Connect for some interesting early examples of this.
  • Leverage aggregated social media more effectively. One of the very positive steps in the LEV experiment is its willingness to aggregate content from existing social media channels into its editorial content, if but on a sidebar basis. These channels are often the places where the freshest and most personally interesting content can be found. How can this information be massaged and contextualized to add value to the community most effectively? More importantly, how can merchants already using social media channels like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook be offered the ability to have their videos, tweets and posts featured very contextually in a publication like the LEV for a fee? In other words, why pay local salespeople to place ads when you can just make it easy for them to use the content that they're already producing online?
It's good to see NYU working with The New York Times on this project, but my suspicion is that they could use some help to get this project looking a lot more vibrant and a lot more tuned in to the commercial potential for such a news outlet. The help that they need is not necessarily social media help in the sense of getting experts on Twitter or whatever so much as getting help from people who understand how communities really work. Perhaps the sociology department or business school at NYU could help them with some research on how people really relate to one another in a community that is a complex mix of local pride, ambition and talent that can be harvested for news, entertainment and marketing-related revenues. Until then, I guess that we can grade this assignment an incomplete for now.
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