Making Hyperlocal Work

Hyperlocal publishers convened at Bloomberg to discuss business models.

Late one night two years ago, Anjali Khosla watched a woman being assaulted and kidnapped outside her apartment window. Khosla says she called the police. In fact, she says, a lot of her neighbors called the police and 911.

The next day Khosla looked for news about the assault and kidnapping. There was no coverage. She called people she knew at WPIX and DNAInfo. She even talked with a DNAInfo reporter. She learned that there was no police report.

“Much of New York City is now a news desert,” Khosla says. Khosla, along with Warren St. John and Christine Mohan, was part of a panel gathered by the NYC Media Lab as part of their citywide graduate class, Tech, Media & Democracy.

She’s the editor of Fast Company, and spent much of her career at the New York Daily News as a reporter. But this incident in particular caused her to get involved with a hyperlocal news startup called Local Standard.

Monetizing local news is the key, Khosla says. Local Standard is depending on foundation money. It will start in one neighborhood, with one reporter and one editor. It’s being spearheaded by John Ness, who was the Editor in Chief of DNAInfo.

When newspapers went digital, traditional advertising models did not translate.

“So far, digital has been about page views,” says Warren St. John, CEO and Editor in Chief of Patch. “And page views are just not worth that much online because the ads don’t get clicked through much.”

And yet, local news is the connective tissue of communities, says St. John. He calls it the hyperlocal conundrum.

“We talk about that a lot at Patch. How do we break the hamster wheel between pages and traffic and locality, because they are fundamentally in tension?”

According to Khosla, the advertising model broke when local businesses discovered that just because there is an ad in the paper doesn’t mean everyone looked at it. Digital metrics surfaced a long inherent problem with advertising.

“We used to say it’s “Print dollars, digital dimes and mobile pennies,” says Christine Mohan, co-founder of Civil, which calls itself a marketplace for sustainable journalism. Civil plans to launch in Spring 2018.

“The thing that broke local news is a small microcosm of what broke digital advertising in general. It’s a scale game,” says Mohan.

St. John says he’s optimistic. People want local news, St. John says. It’s like making cupcakes.

“It’s established that people like cupcakes. Right? We know the problem is how do you pay for the cupcakes so you can keep making more of them? So we make something you know people like. How do we scale it?”

Technology can play a part of that, St. John says. Patch leverages technology to allow talented reporters to do better reporting, according to St. John. Weather forecasts, and real estate sales are easily automated with today’s AI. The craft of writing stories, seasoned news judgement and reporters who are embedded in their communities, is where Patch focuses resources.

Civil will be reader supported. They will sell tokens and give investors a direct hand in what newsrooms are funded. Mohan says it will take out the middleman, or billionaire owner, and connect journalists directly with their readers across four areas: local, investigative, international foreign bureaus and policy journalism. She says over 400 people have applied to start newsrooms globally. They’ve announced their first local newsrooms. One is called The River and it’s focused on news in the Hudson River Valley. It’s a marketplace of about 3.5 million people.

Khosla says she’s not sure AI and technology need to be a number one priority at this level right now. The urgent need for local news is being distracted by what she calls “shiny new objects that aren’t going to make news less racist, for example.”

“Guess what,” she says. “It doesn’t actually make your journalism better. It can actually be a distraction.”