Delivering hyperlocal news at scale in Philadelphia

Sarah Schmalbach
Nov 4, 2019 · 7 min read

After winning the Google Local News Innovation Challenge, the Lenfest Local Lab and The Philadelphia Inquirer will collaborate to test a new form of hyperlocal newsletters.

“Workin’ in Philly — Philadelphia, PA” by Brolafsson is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

When streets close unexpectedly, a construction site pops up or library hours change in your neighborhood, where do you go for reliable information? With many regional local news organizations primarily focusing on citywide issues, finding consistent and in-depth hyperlocal coverage on things like street closures, construction, neighborhood services and more can be difficult and time-consuming.

The problem: scaling reliable hyperlocal coverage

The Lenfest Local Lab and The Philadelphia Inquirer are partnering on solutions to the growing hyperlocal news problem and we’re focusing on email newsletters as a starting point.

Newsletters have proven to be a successful antidote to the morass of social media. Readers appreciate the intimacy of the product, and they help build habits that keep readers coming back time-and-again.

The proposed solution: partially-automated, highly collaborative newsletters

Together, we’re testing a new form of hyperlocal newsletter that leverages data automation techniques and collaboration with neighborhood news and community groups to make scaling these products across a region more realistic. Last week, the project was announced as one of the 34 winners of Google’s GNI Innovation Challenge. This will allow us to experiment with a few neighborhood newsletters across the area in 2020 to look for content commonalities and smart efficiencies.

The current state of newsletters @ The Inquirer

The Inquirer has launched many successful newsletters over the past two years, but most are labor intensive, said Kim Fox, our collaborator and the Inquirer’s Managing Editor of Audience and Innovation.

Newsletters The Inquirer offers today.

“In order to continue producing valuable newsletter editorial products with the resources we have, we’re keen to explore how automation and content partnerships can help our evolution,” she said. “In particular with automation, does that exercise have the potential to improve or lessen the quality of experience and engagement?”

The Inquirer’s data show that visitors from the Philly area are four times more likely to subscribe than those from outside the area, according to Kim. The Inquirer would like to see if readers would value more hyperlocal information and if it would increase their likelihood to subscribe and then continue to read the Inquirer.

How we will innovate on the newsletter format

Automation. During this project we’ll partially-automate neighborhood news about issues like construction, parking tickets and transportation by pulling from public data sources such as OpenDataPhilly, the city’s repository of data sets and APIs, and others.

Collaboration. We’ll also test the potential for hyperlocal collaborations between neighborhood publications, community groups and regional news organizations. The collaboration will test concepts similar to what is being achieved the local topical reporting collaborative, Broke in Philly, but will organize around pooling information that’s uniquely useful to residents of a certain area.

Bonus: Linking innovation directly to business. Another innovative aspect to the project is our attempt to build a stronger bridge between journalism innovation work and business outcomes. The lab’s work to-date has not focused on seamlessly linking experimental insights to core product and business development cycles, but will for this project. This is ultimately key to the success of our experimentation, and our focus on scalability and monetization with this project will make progress towards that goal.

How we’re kicking off the project

Since much of our research in the lab is already done on a hyperlocal level, we have a process for quickly validating our assumptions in order to get experiments off the ground quickly and learn. As a celebration of winning the GNI Challenge, and to fulfill our mission of sharing what we do and learn as we go, here is a brief look into our research process:

Step 1: Surveys

We typically survey at least 30 people before moving into the development phase of an experiment. (You can read more about our UX research methods here.) For larger-scale projects and initiatives, teams may often want to cast a wider net, but since we are a small, experimental team tasked with exploring many new concepts, we like to test our assumptions quickly.

In some cases we send a survey out via email, but in other instances we go out into public spaces where people are likely to have time to speak with us, such as a food court or a park. Other times we go straight into a neighborhood and find people willing to spend a few minutes with us providing their feedback on an idea. Our method depends on which audience we’re looking to get feedback from, and where we can quickly reach them.

The research survey we’ve developed for this hyperlocal newsletter project breaks down into a few key parts:

We capture demographic information such as age, how long someone has lived in the neighborhood and their school or work status. This way later on we can segment survey responses based on these factors to make decisions about what direction to take the product in, based on the priorities of our most important audience.

We ask about news and information needs so we can prioritize what appears in the product based on what we know is important to people. We balance what people say they need with ideas we have for new features or content that aren’t available today.

We also ask about people’s current habits so we can be realistic about which products and experiences we are competing with. Analyzing responses helps us understand where people currently invest their time and how we could offer a better experience.

Last we ask open-ended questions to make sure we’re not missing anything, because no team knows everything about the opportunity and bounds of a new project.

For our first project, focused on Fishtown, here is our survey and a few sample questions below:

Step 2: Analysis

The responses from these surveys help our designer, Faye, sketch out wireframes for what the new product could look like — in this case, a neighborhood newsletter. Below is an example of what one might look like in my neighborhood, Fishtown. The newsletter includes headlines, public data, hyperlocal curated social media streams, neighborhood photo galleries, messages from local businesses, a poll, and a way for residents to ask questions.

Step 3: Prototyping

Next we mock up prototypes that include real stories and actual data, and take them back around to potential users for reactions and feedback before building out tools or interfaces we need to launch the test.

For this project we’ll be filling in our prototype with real Philly-area public data and meeting with neighborhood news and community groups to find ways to collaborate to get important information out to people.

Additional Steps

After prototype testing we’ll start building features and prepping for alpha and beta launches, the details of which we’ll share here along the way.

What’s next

This is the first in a series of posts we’ll publish through 2020 as we get the project off the ground. The lab and The Inquirer are excited about the principles of open innovation and eager to see what happens when we work together. Want to collaborate on newsletter content? Or just find out more? Let us know! You can follow these stories here, or follow us on Twitter @lenfestlab.


The Lenfest Local Lab is a multidisciplinary product and user experience innovation team located in Philadelphia supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

The Lenfest Institute for Journalism is a non-profit organization whose mission is to develop and support sustainable business models for great local journalism. The Institute was founded in 2016 by entrepreneur H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest with the goal of helping transform the news industry in the digital age to ensure high-quality local journalism remains a cornerstone of democracy.

The Lenfest Local Lab

A Philadelphia-based news product innovation team within the Lenfest Institute for Journalism experimenting openly with ways to reinvent the daily user experience for local news

Sarah Schmalbach

Written by

Leading the Lenfest Local Lab (@lenfestlab) for the Lenfest Institute (@lenfestinst). Philadelphian and former product @GdnMobileLab @usatoday @phillydotcom.

The Lenfest Local Lab

A Philadelphia-based news product innovation team within the Lenfest Institute for Journalism experimenting openly with ways to reinvent the daily user experience for local news

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