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Scalable local news: The sniff test

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Thursday, May 08, 2014


Local news is valuable, but for nearly two decades, digital publishers have struggled to scale a sustainable local news product. Portland is about to be the testing ground for one of the next round of innovators as GoLocalPDX gears up to launch another local news website.

GoLocalPDX may be different than what came before in national, scalable local news efforts: It has grown a financial footing in two medium-sized New England cities, which have been hard hit by the economy. GoLocal’s co-founder Josh Fenton puts the business side of the startup first, which may sound strange to read in a business journal but the buzz around many startup news organizations nowadays still centers on the need to fix news rather than build business.
GoLocal sells ads, makes a profit, and squeezes the bottom line, as Ken Doctor reports in his Newsonomics report in the Nieman Journalism Lab about local news trends. The news that it publishes is different from what you’d see in a traditional outlet, and its playbook includes the stuff that is working now in digital at sites like BuzzFeed. GoLocal relies on columnists – Mindsetters  – who range from former members of Congress and former elected state officials to bloggers and community activists.
Expect lists and short bits and bites of information. Although the company does pride itself on its “commitment to invest in high quality enterprise journalism,” it likely won’t have enough staff to have someone regularly camped out at local government meetings. That era of comprehensive coverage of local government by independent news organizations may be nearing a close, anyway, as many non-profit news startups have shown with a focus on deep-dive, called-shot stories that can be executed by a handful of staff.
GoLocalPDX will enter a market very different from its eastern roots in Providence, R.I., with GoLocalProv and Worcester, Mass., with GoLocalWorcester, and the jump across the country was intended to make GoLocal a national player in local news.
There’s a nuance to local news that hasn’t scaled in past attempts. Patch, AOL’s broad attempt to build a scaled local news presence, collapsed earlier this year, and Everyblock, the Knight Foundation–funded hyperlocal news startup that once reached 19 cities, has had a fitful history, relaunching in Chicago in late 2013 after being dormant for 10 months. As far back as 1997, Microsoft chased local content with Sidewalk, an expensive early effort at finding the balance between a potentially lucrative local ad market and content that readers found valuable.
GoLocalPDX will have to capture the sense of place of Portland to be accepted, and this is what has likely made other iterations of scalable local news products struggle.  
“It’s the hype part of hyperlocal that’s been overplayed. Local is local – we know it when we see it, and we know when it’s well-done and when it isn’t,” Doctor writes. Hyperlocal hasn’t yet found an algorithmic secret sauce, and it still relies on the sensibilities of the people developing and managing the content.
Portland has a number of news outlets that capture the essence of the city well, so it will be interesting to see how GoLocalPDX establishes its voice. Local news done well reflects the zeitgeist of a place, and Portland is into being authentically Portland. 

Mark Blaine blogs on the media biz for Oregon Business.



+1 #1 Worcester, MAGuest 2014-07-10 01:02:12
Interesting Twitter post by former GoLocalProv writer regarding GoLocal24 founder:

@Zeke_Wright: How long does it take to get paid as a @GoLocalProv contributor? Five months, 22 emails, and counting.. @FentonJosh
Quote | Report to administrator

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