Katie Shepard and I conducted two blogging workshops last week at the Belden Noble Library to teach community members how to contribute their stories to Essex on Lake Champlain. In addition to congratulating everyone who attended (Bravo!) and thanking the library staff and board for hosting the events (Thanks!), I’d like to introduce the concept of hyperlocal media and to explore its relevance to the Essex blog.
The Essex blog workshops were hands-on 90 minute sessions, focused primarily on helping new contributors create their profiles and first blog posts. We explored best practices in the context of almost three years of blog analytics, and touched upon blogging strategy and producing enduring, optimal results.
Although I explained why hyperlocal media is useful to Essex area organizations, residents and visitors, I didn’t have time to adequately explain the concept.
What is Hyperlocal Media?
“Hyperlocal media” smacks of buzzwordy geekiness, conjuring up cartoonish images of digital natives with nano-span Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). But this 21st century jargon precisely sums up what we’ve been experimenting with over the last 32 months on the Essex blog.
Hyperlocal connotes information oriented around a well defined community with its primary focus directed toward the concerns of its residents. (Wikipedia)
Hyperlocal media is defined as offering an online news or content service pertaining to a small community such as a town, village or single postcode… online local media services that attempt to deliver hyperlocal content… [because] traditional media providers have found it hard to adjust their high-cost models to a sufficiently local area. (Nesta)
There’s no official definition, but generally a hyperlocal news site (also known as local-local or microsite) is devoted to the stories and minutiae of a particular neighborhood, ZIP code or interest group within a certain geographic area. (American Journalism Review)
In the age of the internet… people want to know… what’s happening in their local area. Since local newspapers are currently being challenged by tough business conditions, this is becoming increasingly difficult… [But in recent years we are seeing] many launches of online local media services attempting to deliver increasingly local – ‘hyperlocal’ – content… (Nesta)
At its core the mission for hyperlocal media outlets is to nurture community by connecting neighbors. This presents inevitable challenges (including scalability and financial viability), but it clearly defines the top priorities for a community blog like Essex on like Champlain:
- serve a targeted audience with relevant, timely content;
- develop robust peer-to-peer communication infrastructure;
- empower and support diverse, representative content creators;
- favor organic, collaborative evolution over solo editorial vision;
- and have fun celebrating the diverse richness of our community.
This last priority is important. Our birth as an Essex booster in June 2011 continues to guide our mission today. The Essex blog should be enjoyable to read and enjoyable to create. The Essex blog should praise and showcase all that is wonderful about our community.
Criticism and debate, while necessary and incredibly important for a healthy community, are best handled through other channels like Letters to the Editor of our local media, Town Board meetings, etc. Our friends at Kentishtowner say it better.
We are a “good news” title and leave the hard stuff to other papers; instead we cover the arts, food, lifestyle, travel and people. (Kentishtowner.co.uk)
Hyperlocal Media Models
It’s worth noting that I didn’t launch the Essex blog with another clear model in mind, but I’ve since discovered scores of similarly oriented hyperlocal blogs around the globe. Two of the most inspiring are Baristanet (focused on Montclair and Maplewood, NJ and environs) and Kentishtowner (focused on Kentish Town in north west London as well as Camden borough and London in general).
Both micro niche platforms have built devoted audiences within geographically restricted areas. Their success has dilated their scope and relevance (Kentishtowner has become North London’s award-winning daily cultural guide), but they continue to focus on producing, curating and distributing highly relevant local content for their communities.
I have tried to learn from their examples in developing an Essex-centric information hub tailored to the preferences of our community members to read, support and contribute to Essex on Lake Champlain.
Another valuable influence is Vermont’s Front Porch Forum (FPF), co-founded by Michael Wood-Lewis.
Front Porch Forum’s mission is to help neighbors connect and build community… well-connected neighborhoods are friendlier places to live, with less crime, healthier residents, higher property values, and better service from local government and public utilities… once people have an easy and safe way to communicate with neighbors, they will! And that simple act adds up. The cumulative impact can be huge… after months of FPF, people often report feeling more connected to neighbors, more tuned in to local goings on, and more a part of their community. And in many cases, people then become more active… organizing a group yard sale, mentoring a local kid, volunteering for a park clean-up, voting on election day, etc. That’s what FPF is all about! ~ Michael Wood-Lewis (Front Porch Forum)
Bill McKibben examined FPF four years ago in a Yankee Magazine article, “Local networks are bringing people together in Vermont” which explored the relationship between expanding local social networks in order to improve neighborliness.
The biggest difference between Front Porch Forum and the rest of the Web… is that its ultimate goal is to get you out from in front of the screen and into the world around you. “The real feedback loop is on the main street of town,” says Erik Filkorn, in his eighth year on the select board in Richmond, Vermont. “You’ll be coming out of the store and someone will say, ‘Hey Erik, I saw the thing you wrote. Here’s what I think.’ […] this is very much grounded in the flesh-and-blood community.” (Yankee Magazine)
The Essex blog is not a mini Front Porch Forum. Nor is it a knockoff of Baristanet or Kentishtowner. But we share the overarching objective of nurture community by connecting neighbors. These models have been helpful as much to understand what the Essex blog can not be as what it can be. Every community is totally unique, so it follows that successful hyperlocal media must likewise be totally unique, custom tailored to the people and place it serves.
Key to Success
Jan Schaffer (Director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism) offers an insightful observation about successful hyperlocal media:
“The really successful [citizen] sites out there have a lot of naked caring and passion for community, and it’s not what we journalists are comfortable with,” Schaffer notes. So it’s important to remember that the people participating in the hyperlocal citizen sites generally don’t think of themselves as, or want to be, journalists–”they just want to get information about their communities.” (American Journalism Review)
Citizen journalism is much vaunted in the Internet age. Everyone is a journalist today! Or are they?
Journalism is a skilled profession with rules and traditions and expectations. Journalism is refereed (for better and for worse) by editors with standards, monetization strategies and biases. Journalism aspires to objectivity (or at least accuracy and reliability).
Hyperlocal media may well include journalism (professional journalism and/or citizen journalism), but it is a different beast altogether than traditional journalism. The reasons are many (and fodder for another post), but I’m especially drawn to Schaffer’s emphasis on passion and caring. At the heart of the Essex blog is a passion for the Essex community and a deep and enduring care for its health, happiness, prosperity and enduring vitality. Hyperlocal media is less about emulating traditional journalism and more about leveraging the collective passion of a community.
In order to accomplish this, the Essex blog tries to connect people who care about our community, to connect residents and visitors who are passionate about all that is positive in and around Essex. In other words, the key to success is passionate people! And last week’s blog workshops were an effort to expand the diversity of local voices sharing their passion on the blog. If you missed out, let us know you’re interesting in blogging. We’re planning another workshop in the spring, but we can jumpstart you in the meantime as long as you’re passionate…
- Vermont-created community website connects neighbors statewide (wptz.com)
- Hyperlocal News: Why it is Important and What it must do to Survive (maplatt.wordpress.com)
- Front Porch Forum expands to every Vermont town (vtdigger.org)
- Hyperlocal 101: Part One, 10 hyperlocal business models (worldmediatrend.wordpress.com)
- Hyperlocal media: A small but growing part of the (UK) local media ecosystem (damianradcliffe.wordpress.com)
- ‘Where hyperlocal media should focus its attention’ (nextlevelofnews.com)
- 2013 Year in Review: Behold the Booming Blog! (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Why hyperlocal blogs are important for local government? (bestbywm.wordpress.com)