TNT: The state of hyperlocal online news in Philadelphia - Technical.ly Philly

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Aug. 31, 2009 11:30 am

TNT: The state of hyperlocal online news in Philadelphia

Sarah Lockard should take more walks. Earlier this summer, the Wayne native was on a long stroll when she decided she should contact Internet craft supply marketplace Etsy about working with AroundMainLine.com, the online magazine startup she launched last fall to cover the famed, ritzy swath of Philadelphia suburbs. It was on another walk — […]
Updated: 8/31/09 6:17 p.m., source title
Sarah Lockard should take more walks.

Earlier this summer, the Wayne native was on a long stroll when she decided she should contact Internet craft supply marketplace Etsy about working with AroundMainLine.com, the online magazine startup she launched last fall to cover the famed, ritzy swath of Philadelphia suburbs.

It was on another walk — one amid the crowds of last September spring’s blue-blooded Devon Horse Show — that the former B2B magazine sales executive decided the Main Line needed community coverage online.

sarah-lockard

Sarah Lockard

Both “epiphanies,” as Lockard called them, seem to have worked out just fine. AroundMainLine.com has partnered with Etsy to profile artisan goods from regional crafts-makers and, while she declined to disclose monthly revenue or funding, her online magazine features weekly content, has a Web designer on staff, photographers on call and a sidebar etched with advertising.

Lockard, 34, boasts that hers was the first for-profit online magazine in the Philadelphia region. But she won’t be the last.

The hyperlocal Web outfit — tied by geography, focused on a niche community and online-only — is meant to be a great wave of the future, seen by MSNBC’s recent purchase of crime and news aggregator EveryBlock, partnerships with online news startups and product launches like Outside.In and Patch.com.

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Philadelphia has its first wave of adopters, but their sustainability is far less certain.

Lockard couldn’t name a single site in the Delaware Valley that joined her in independently adding original reporting to a localized coverage area. Though they exist, others, too, knew little of anyone else doing what they did. Most were islands; many part-time bloggers and aggregators and no others with any signs of revenue coming in.

They range from sites focusing on neighborhoods or towns of little more than a few thousand people and motivated by a sense of public service to academic tools funded by big pockets to sites, like Lockard’s, that aim to cover a community better and prove sustainable with a business plan in tow.

Is the future of hyperlocal Philadelphia online news here, or are we still dependent on collapsing community newspapers and a shrinking mainstream media industry, the largest and most influential of whom are fighting to remain solvent?

NEIGHBORHOOD SERVICE

The hyperlocal news movement — often pegged as an outgrowth in 2005 — was going to begin on the most local level: the neighborhoods and towns and regions too small or too underpopulated to be covered profitably by mainstream media, particularly at a time of struggle for legacy print journalism outlets. The hyperlocal trend, the experts said, would be fed largely by citizen journalists, emboldened by plummeting technology costs and the power of social media.

Yet, for a city of neighborhoods, our blocks aren’t heavy with the citizen journalists some might expect. In an age of personal publishing, social media and, now, a flux of unemployed journalists, Technically Philly found just two regularly updated, neighborhood-specific sites.

Jim Smiley is a neighborhood kid. He grew up in Frankford, a historic and beleaguered working class neighborhood in lower Northeast Philadelphia that plunged into urban decay during the last decades of the 20th century. After surprising many by buying a home in the old neighborhood following his graduation from Drexel University and nabbing a Center City Web development gig, Smiley, 31, and his father, now retired but still living in Frankford, founded the Frankford Gazette — or reincarnated the name of an old print community paper and put it to a blog format [Full Disclosure: The author of this article lives in Frankford and has been featured on the Frankford Gazette site.]

Seeing Frankford as destined for a change — big, grand architecture, a 15-minute El ride to Old City, with parks, trees and parking — the Smileys set out to chronicle the good, but balance it with the bad.

The pair runs Google adsense, but with weekly traffic numbered in the hundreds and not much advertising interest in a low-income, inner-city neighborhood, there is little more hope than to recoup some hosting expense. Instead, the blog, updated a few times a week with aggregation, shoe-leather reporting and hounding local legislators, is something of a community service.

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It’s a familiar tune for Andrew Schwalm.

Since moving to 51st Street in 2003, Schwalm, 34, has found a deep love for his portion of West Philadelphia. Lured by the interest in writing, exploring and promoting an adjacent park, he began MalcolmXPark.org, which caters to the 52nd Street corridor and other activities in and around the park.

“I have no high-minded journalism intent here… or think I could build a business or make money,” he says. “I love this neighborhood, and so I’m not interested in necessarily reporting in an unbiased way. I’m very much in the mode of a booster.”

But there’s only one problem, a recurrent problem with all citizen journalism projects. He’s leaving.

In the coming weeks, he’s moving with his girlfriend, who took a job at New York University in Manhattan, and he doesn’t know who, if anyone, would take over his role. Whatever readers he found through photos, resident interviews and event listings will likely lose the only source adding value to Malcolm X. Park.

Traffic numbers for Frankford Gazette and MalcolmXPark.org

EXPERIMENTS IN MISSION

There is no doubt that many of the questions that surround the future of hyperlocal news are tied to the historic doubt surrounding much of the news media we have come to know, particularly print standard-bearers like daily newspapers.

So, it may come as no surprise that college schools of communications have seen a gaping hole in local news coverage as an opportunity for training the future of journalism.

In recent years, Temple University has retrofitted its much-trumpeted Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab capstone course, stuffing its Philadelphia Neighborhoods site with student content covering under-served neighborhoods. One of the professors leading MURL doesn’t shy away from calling the course an important part of the next generation of local reporting.

Not to be outdone by its bigger North Philadelphia Big Five rival, LaSalle University is rolling out this semester its own localized news course, run by for-credit student labor. Led by former 18-year Inquirer columnist reporter Huntly Collins, the first class of 14 LaSalle journalism seniors will be working in partnership with G-Town Radio and Germantown Newspapers to add coverage to that aged northwest community, after a month of diversity training.

“You know that saying, ‘all politics is local?’ Well, all reporting is local. If we don’t teach our students to cover local news, they won’t really know how to report on anything, from a different community or someplace like Baghdad,” Collins says. “The future of local news is really the future of news.”

Collins declined an offer to partner her students’ content with Student Union 34, the Comcast-sponsored, Inquirer-backed Web site of college-student journalism classwork, citing an interest in working with more localized content. She says she hopes to make their coverage a dependable addition to the Germantown media, including their Web sites.

Others are looking at that portion of the city and its ability to sustain local, online reporting experimentation.

The Web and civic engagement arm of WHYY, headed by former Inquirer editorial page editor Chris Satullo, is waiting on a large grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to roll out its own hyperlocal news network focusing on Germantown and the rest of northwest Philadelphia [Full Disclosure: The author has expressed interest in a position with this proposed initiative / Brian James Kirk and Sean Blanda were involved in the design of SU34].

Sources also told Technically Philly of other foundations and well-funded individuals who are snooping around the idea of Philadelphia’s local news future. While big money can usher in legitimacy, none of these have any business model, but Lockard and AroundMainLine aren’t alone.

A BUSINESS OF MAKING NEWS

In April, John Myers launched West Philly News, taking on the cumbersome task of covering perhaps the most economically, racially and socially diverse region of the city, mostly through aggregation of print publications like the UC Review and the Daily Pennsylvanian. That work is abutted with occasional citizen journalism, like photos he takes and those submitted by readers.

The South Jersey-native is the founder of NorthernLiberties.org and its active community bulletin, but after leaving that neighborhood to buy a home in Spruce Hill to fit his wife and new kid, he launched the new venture, allowing the older, more established NoLibs site to continue on its own. Myers is focused now on growing coverage and interest, but while the WHYY radio producer — he is unaffiliated and said he was unaware of the nonprofit’s Web interest in the northwest — has a steady day job, he isn’t ignoring the potential to make West Philly News stable through profitability.

“If you look at the neighborhood locals, like a UC Review or the North Star, you have a staff of a half-dozen people or so who are supported by advertisers and are also printing a much more expensive project,” he says. “If you had only a fraction of the advertisers in the weekly and help from neighborhood people, you could support a staff of… a couple reporters and a sales rep working at least part-time.”

It’s a model being employed in another portion of the city and elsewhere in the region.

NEast Philly, which covers the more than two dozen neighborhoods and 300,000 people of Northeast Philadelphia through aggregation, unpaid columnists and occasional reader-fueled reporting, is pursuing monetization already, first through advertising [Full Disclosure: The staff of Technically Philly has personal and professional relationships with the founder of NEast Philly, and this author is an occasional contributor to the site].

Founder Shannon McDonald, 22, has teamed up with several other Northeast natives, including the former editor of the now defunct community newspaper the Northeast News Gleaner. They plan on bringing in revenue by the year’s end, McDonald says.

Bryan Shipenberg, a Bala Cynwyd-based graphic designer, launched a less sleek, if more localized, site focused on a business district in suburban Montgomery County’s Lower Merion, called Bala Avenue. For now, it’s little more than aggregation and press release regurgitation, but he’s effectively squatting on the profitable hyperlocal news trend.

“I believe that a year from now when the township lays the Cynwyd Trail and finishes the rehab of the Cynwyd station, people will come. When they open the Manayunk bridge more people will come,” Shipenberg, who also maintains a site for the Friends of the Cynwyd Heritage Trail, wrote Technically Philly in an e-mail. “With a little infusion of money BalaAvenue.com will become a great resource for the region.”

But not quite yet.

THE PRESENT PARSED FROM THE FUTURE

So very nearly all of the region’s hyperlocal products remain the passions of part-timers: largely fueled by aggregation and plans for the future, not quite ready to fill a hole left by a lost print counterpart, but surely adding to the conversation.

Even AroundMainLine faces limitations. Lockard, its founder, can use her sales background to fill her site with advertising, but, with occasional exception, she is the site’s sole content creator. Beyond profitability and depth, Collins, the LaSalle professor, called foul on the possibility for online news makers to fulfill all the needs of localized coverage anytime soon, considering constraints of the digital divide and other concerns.

In Philadelphia, no one is replacing the print weeklies, big dailies and established TV and radio news-gathering entities just yet, it seems, but many betting on the hyperlocal trend are quite a bit more optimistic.

“Big companies are already starting to pull away from print and eyeballs are too,” says Lockard of AroundMainLine. “This is where publishing and communications are headed, so we want to be there first.”

Below, watch new media pundit Jeff Jarvis and TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington talk hyperlocal news at a conference in Munich, Germany from February.

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Every Monday, Technically Not Tech will feature people, projects, and businesses that are involved with Philly�s tech scene, but aren�t necessarily technology focused. See others here.

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Christopher Wink

Christopher Wink is a Cofounder, Chief Executive Officer and Publisher of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. In that capacity, he is a co-organizer of Philly Tech Week, Baltimore Innovation Week, Delaware Innovation Week and other events that bring smart people together. Previously, Wink worked for a homeless advocacy nonprofit and was a freelance reporter for a variety of publications. He writes regularly about news innovation and best business practices on his personal blog here and curates a personal monthly newsletter of ideas and links here. The bicycle commuter loves cities, urban politics and squabbling about neighborhood boundaries.

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