“Local doesn’t scale,” they told me.
It took a little while but, while growing up, I began to encounter different subjects, conflicts, debates, and other things that I didn’t feel comfortable agreeing with.
“You can’t skateboard there.”
“You need a school degree to be successful.”
“Don’t study the lawn with a magnifying glass on a sunny day.”
I saw myself asking “why?” to these things more often. Some answers became quite obvious but I refused to accept many others, which lit a fire in me (or the lawn) and influenced my education and career.
I developed a stubborn curiosity, to say the least. I wanted to know more, I found a pleasure in finding these things out or proving them wrong. Honestly, without this curiosity, I wouldn’t have started projects own my own, I wouldn’t have spent years studying local journalism, and, most importantly, I wouldn’t be in CUNY’s Entrepreneurial Journalism cohort this year.
There were a few questions and uncertainties that led me to begin my local news project, Bloom, so I want to take this moment to highlight those. It started in a computer science class at the end of the spring semester in 2012. The professor wasn’t teaching anything too interesting and I had the urge to go skateboard. There was still plenty of lecture time left so I opened my notebook and began to brainstorm some thoughts. I thought about how cool it would be to reach out to other skaters on campus and ask who could skate around the parking lot after class. I thought to myself, “why isn’t this possible to do on my phone or computer right now?” I began translating this urge into a programming project of sorts. My notebook reads:
“Anybody trying to skateboard at GMU?”
“Blind date for personal interests and needs.”
“Twitter with a purpose.”
The list goes on.
I didn’t end up finding other skaters on campus that day. But, fast forward two months, I got an email about new documentation being released for websites — it was about geolocation. Geolocation helps enable websites and applications to automatically determine a user’s location. After reading through the paper, I immediately opened up my notebook and started piecing together how my skateboard idea could use it.
Experiment turned start-up
My brother Matt joined me shortly after that day—it was the beginning of our experiment, Bloom. We quickly put together a simple geolocation program online and continued brainstorming new ideas to try. It wasn’t anything serious at first. I guess you could say we just wanted to prove to ourselves that these ideas were possible.
The initial idea for Bloom was to improve how information is communicated locally between people — neighbors, tourists, or anyone. For years, we studied and experimented with similar ideas that closely connected people with conversations, advice, emergencies, and so on. Our mission was to bring this online information closer to reality, on-the-ground.
“A bloom is a large group of jellyfish that gather in a small area, for a limited time, to absorb nutrients from one another and their surroundings.”
In 2014, I remember picking up a newspaper during a visit in London and immediately recognized a bigger opportunity for Bloom. By this time, I had developed a strong passion for leveraging geography between information and people. Within technology, location is a topic that’s still underserved. Anyway, I sat down to start circling locations in the newspaper and relating them to each other by where they took place. Surprisingly, I had never seen a newspaper from this perspective before — I knew I was on to something.
When I got back to the states, Matt and I began researching more about local journalism and technology — pretty rigorously, actually. Almost every night, we would stock up on leftover newspapers at the grocery store, then go home and begin collecting location data from each article. We found the journalists’ focus on geography was highly concentrated, yet when compared to how the articles were gathered and presented online, we saw the geography data was completely ignored, written like any other text.
This newspaper study concluded that local news is one of the most important, yet underserved, sources for local information online. To be specific, we discovered that 85% of news stories are focused on a specific place — that’s a lot. So we’re left with the question, why isn’t this data being utilized online? The value of location is a strong advantage that can help news articles connect more easily with the local readers they intend to serve. Yet, they’re still being published online without much attention to the location.
Today, the mission of Bloom is to empower people to discover and share local news more efficiently. Our platform allows journalists to leverage geography in their stories, offering readers a more personal experience for places they view important.
Creative detour: This is a word, #this is an opportunity
Think of life before the hashtag, how difficult it was to sort content and analyze trends across websites— or was that even possible? The concept of a hashtag gave birth to many new opportunities and transformed the perspective of language into a third dimension.
Now think if geographic data was leveraged the same way that a word was leveraged into a #word. We would begin to see an entirely new realm of opportunities for local news — and any local content for that matter.
Our Game Plan
Over the past year we’ve focused on making it easier to integrate geography into the publishing and distribution processes of local news. We’ve been able to use this strategy to form new ways of storytelling, social sharing, collaboration, curation, and search. We believe there are more opportunities waiting to be uncovered in journalism and we’re determined to find the solutions to do so.
For our time here at CUNY, we’re looking forward to exploring these new ideas for journalism:
- Where is “local” evolving online? (ex. search engines, advertising) How can local news be shaped to better fit with these services?
- Devices are becoming more mobile, so where is technology expanding to (e.g. subway stations, billboards)? How can local news capture a piece of the pie?
- How can local news from the street be more accessible and personal to local eyes on a digital screen?