Where the growth of online hyperlocal news falls short most prominently is in communities where web literacy keeps that interactivity low.
The Passyunk Post has seen success in a fast gentrifying neighborhood and NEastPhilly.com has seen its greatest impact in its 19,000-person strong Facebook community, which is fast becoming familiar to older residents.
But in its five years, there has always been this question of how big an impact could the Frankford Gazette have, covering the lower Northeast neighborhood that still has post-industrial scars and limited signs of Internet-savvy changeover.
Founded by software programmer Jim Smiley and his retired father Bob Smiley, both natives and residents of Frankford and its sister-community Northwood, in recent weeks the Frankford Gazette has begun experimenting with its latest way to grow its audience and empower them to action.
- Digital news display: Last month, the Frankford Gazette unveiled its digital news display, which, through a partnership with the Northeast Treatment Center on the 4600 block of Frankford Avenue and the Frankford CDC, scrolls news and tweets about Frankford, as depicted above. The partnership is an interesting one, as the treatment center is one of the drug rehabilitation centers that the Frankford Gazette has rallied against in the past, though there’s a clear effort by NET, as it is known, to be seen as more community driven than others. The idea came out of a visit Jim Smiley had to last year’s Online News Association conference, he said.
- Text blast service: In 2012, the Frankford Gazette launched a service that sent text messages to residents about upcoming community meetings. There were only 40 sign-ups before its digital news display launched, and now that’s grown some, to more than 50, though those numbers are still clearly small. Smiley uses the TextBlast service that city civic technology officer Tim Wisniewski built during Philly Tech Week 2011.
- Print edition: In 2011, the Frankford Gazette, which was online-only but named after a long-defunct neighborhood print weekly, launched a monthly newsletter, That newsletter, which now publishes 1,000 copies monthly thanks to sponsor by Kidz Partners, put some of its news articles, community profiles and neighborhood meeting notices into a format more familiar with many residents who lived along the Frankford Avenue corridor.
Though smartphone adoption continues to grow in low-income and minority communities, the literacy to consume news blogs or to seek out neighborhood news on social media isn’t necessarily growing as quickly, Jim Smiley said.
The efforts to rethink how a hobbyist hyperlocal news and information tool can connect with its audience should be commended, though that impact will always be balanced by audience size.
Scaling the effort might be the Smiley’s next big challenge. To have impact in Frankford, they have tools, but they’ll likely need a bigger army.
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