I’m sure there’s some sort of clinical name for this syndrome — You can take it to the bank that within twenty-four hours of one of my "I’m not writing any more about Belo" posts, I’ll reliably deliver an extended post on the doings at Our Daily Newspaper.
Since the DMN launched its new Neighbors initiative, several well-meaning friends have offered condolences, thinking that this surely this bodes ill for Our Little Project.
To the contrary, we’re not the least bit surprised that the DMN would launch a suburban and zoned newspaper initiative. (E&P needs to clarify its county lines.) Anyone who’s spent more than twenty minutes reading industry commentary would realize that there is a need to get more local.
But to be clear, this isn’t neighborhood news. Neither, frankly, is Backfence. Carrollton is not a neighborhood. Lewisville-Flower Mound-Highland Village is certainly not a neighborhood. (New rule: if it ain’t Haight-Ashbury and it has a hyphen, it ain’t a neighborhood.) Reston’s not a neigborhood either. Neighnorhood news and suburban news (and certainly aggregated amalgam of suburb news) are two different things. That distinction isn’t a pergorative — it’s a qualifier.
So my strawman argument (which we’re going to prove or disprove with our research) goes something like this:
There is a demi-Maslowian hierarchy of "news needs." For this particualr hierarchy, let’s define news as anything that an individual wants to know about on a regular, repeating basis. That can be breaking news, sports, music, and even commercial specials.
In the strawman diagram above, the needs in blue are pretty well covered by existing media (or in the case of the first, talking around the dinner table). The orange needs are covered, but disparately.
Now here’s the cinch: Just as no one goes around thinking about self-actualizing all the time, people don’t think about going to multiple sources to fill these needs every day. Increasingly, both because of increased signal and noise, there are an exhilaratingly overwhelming number of media choices, and any that supply noise are likely to be pitched like an unwanted free newspaper.
As long as hyperlocal news has to be a conscious "also-read," I don’t believe it will ever gain the critical mass necessary to build a sizable business. I need to be able to go to one place and reliably get the major national headlines; the wide-area local news; information about my local niche interests; and my neighborhood. It doesn’t matter so much the original source of the data as it does the ease of access. It doesn’t matter so much the primary medium as it does that its deliverable to whatever device I happen to have in my hand right now.
What this argues for (admittedly circularly, if you’re reading our business plan), is a digital news source that feeds you what you’re interested in without you having to go looking for it every day. On a local and hyperlocal level, that means generating content; on all the other levels, it means helping you find what you’re looking for quickly, whatever the source and whatever your currently desired medium (website, email, wireless, etc). For the larger mass of users, it means being able to achieve a high level of customization implicitly, for those who aren’t going to take the time to fill out a form.
Of course, a community outlet that really kicks ass will help its users climb the Maslowian pyramid, by enabling their contributions to the conversation. And it has to have the same, if not greater, respect for user contributions that it does for staff contributions — otherwise it doesn’t come across as a conversation, but as a cynical attempt to create a product without spending money on editorial.
Don’t get me wrong — I think that Neighbors, Backfence and others are steps in the right direction. And I don’t kid myself that what we’re proposing isn’t an ambitious quantum leap. It takes people and technology and a critical mass of readers to make it all work. That’s what we hope to do.
First, we have to prove/tweak this theory with research. And part of that will be reader impressions of local products available to them. In that, Neighbors will certainly give us some additional data points.
UPDATE 2: Jay Small has some sensible thoughts along similar lines.
UPDATE 3: YourHub is up, with many of the same strengths and weaknesses.