So today is supposedly the day of reckonning for thousands of digital journaists who work for Patch, the horribly named AOL entry in the corporate arms race to "monetize the hyperlocal space." Big layoffs (nobody knows yet exactly how big), plummeting morale, disintegrating trust and blamethrowing between local outfits and corporate towers.
It's the same story, over and over and over. TBD in Washington. Backfence in ... well, lots of places. There are other examples, but who really cares? If you're reading the coverage of this extremely predictable failure, you'd think that the culprit is "the model."
In the case of Patch, media analyst Ken Doctor of Outsell thinks part of the problem is that the network grew too large too quickly. The downsizing, he says, "is basically an acknowledgment of failure, but in part a noble failure," adding that in 2011-12 Patch hired more journalists than anyone else in the country.
As for hyperlocal generally, Doctor says, "The economic model still doesn't work after 15 years."
Well, allow me to retort! Doesn't work for whom?
Because here's the thing, Ken (and it's not just Doctor I'm speaking to -- he's simply saying what all the media executives say). You can make that claim all day, but it doesn't explain the fact that you can still go to Baristanet.com and read more than you ever wanted to know about Montclair, N.J. They've been doing hyperlocal journalism since 2004. Still going strong. And it's not alone.
So let me Mansplain this to all you corporate media experts out there. Hyperlocal doesn't work for you. And it doesn't work for you because you're not out in the field trying to satisfy people's desire for information about their communities. The Tim Armstrongs of the world don't give a flying fuck about your community. They're chasing the hyperlocal fairy through the forest because they know that local businesses need local media in which to advertise to local customers. It's a huge market -- if you could simply organize it, aggregate it, commoditize it, and drag it back to those plush old-media economies of scale. Who wouldn't want to control that market?
Well, I wouldn't.
After years of splashing around the edges of the hyperlocal pond, I finally dove in this year and built CHSSoccer.net, a hyperlocal web site devoted to soccer in and around Charleston, SC. And while it's not like I didn't think long and hard about the value of that market before committing to it, in the end I concluded that the way to understand its value was to take a risk and get to know it first. As a reporter, the way I get to know things is by covering them. Intensely. Personally. Maybe even obsessively.
So CHSSoccer.net isn't based on the "most efficient unit-cost model," but the Seth Godin Otaku model. To wit: Making average products for average people (think standard "news judgment," or what I've come to call "the Great Averaging Machine") is the 21st century recipe for failure. To succeed in this new world, we have to make things that are remarkable, and one way to do that is to design for people who have a profound passion for that thing -- whether it's ramen noodles in Tokyo or well-made camp tools or an awesome minor-league soccer team that gets only carefully averaged attention from mainstream local media.
Of course, Godin's ideas on this subject -- like Chris Anderson's Long Tail and Dave Winer's visionary but half-formed dream of a new kind of DIY media culture -- have all, in a sense, failed. Because while Godin's now-dated books and blogs and TED talks are brilliant, they haven't really been predictive. American companies continue to chug along making average products for average people. Investors have largely given up on the Long Tail and returned to the herd-safety at the head of the curve. And all the potential media outcomes I outlined in 2009 have largely succumbed to the lowest common-denominator, with metro newspapers "lurch(ing) along zombie-style as scaled-back copies of the original."
We had chaos and hope between 2004 and 2009. Everything since has been a bloodbath. Kinda reminds me of Tiananmen Square in June 1989, except instead of Chinese security forces we got paywalls, reality TV, DRM, auto-tuned pop ... and Patch.
So yes, Patch hired journalists. But Patch was always a sweat shop, designed from the top down to prove the validity of the corporate desire to view "content" as simply a cost-factor. It was hometown news as a Beta test for a corporate-scaled platform of clone sites. And you simply can't run an enterprise at that scale, with that reliance on low-overhead -- without uniform policies, uniform productivity, uniform... everything.
How the fuck is that local?
So let me tell you what local is (and frankly, if you disagree, I don't care -- start your own local site and prove me wrong). Local is relationships. Local is trust. Local is caring about the same things your readers care about, and helping local business people make money.
Local is about speaking in your own voice, all the time, even when that's hard. Local is about feeling supported... and intensely vulnerable. You're local when someone writes you an email that criticizes something about your coverage (I got one of these emails yesterday) and you answer that person honestly, in a way that's true to yourself and your values. You're local when people recognize you as a personal resource.
Local isn't about being universally popular. But if you're accountable and serious and reliable, and you deliver a product that people want and respect, you have a shot at becoming a viable business. Oh, and it also helps if you're not a dick.
Because in the end, if local isn't human-scaled, it isn't actually local.
I knew when I started CHSSoccer.net that I was going to face unexpected problems, and I was right. I knew I was going to make mistakes, and I did. Every day is an iteration. Every idea I had at the beginning is provisional.
And the only money I've made off it so far has been by accident. I got a sponsor in April -- long before I felt ready to "sell" the site. I'm still not convinced it's ready. Is the audience large enough? Can I deliver real value to a mom-and-pop sponsor? And so on. Yet in one trip to a local bar to cover the Battery's most recent away match, two business people approached me to ask about sponsoring the site somehow.
I don't expect to make money off CHSSoccer.net this year, and I know that building a product without even proposing a firm business model for it would never fly in most boardrooms. But this is the way people used to do work, dammit. You built a good thing, and then you sold it. If the effort and the reward were commensurate, you kept on doing it. You learned from your customers, adapted, and rose according to the value you provided.
I can do this because I don't have to sit at a conference table while a bunch of self-interested pricks play clever political fuck-games with my ideas. I can do this because I earn my living as a freelance writer/editor/consultant/geek/mobile-bicycle-repair-service, and work on the site in my spare time. I can do this because I'll be happy with the outcome if CHSSoccer.net becomes a nice part-time job that cuts regular little checks to a few talented local writers and photographers, while improving soccer in my community. I'm a fan.
So when "experts" tell you that hyperlocal doesn't work, please understand what they're really saying. Hyperlocal doesn't work as a massive platform to extract the maximum amount of cash for the the minimal amount of overhead from every identifiable community in America. Local can't be commoditized. Local can't be lead-shielded to obscure their greed and bullshit from their customers.
If some tech-centric entrepreneur out there really wants to make money in "the hyperlocal space," I've got a suggestion for them: Build a shared, scalable infrastructure that start-up sites like mine can use to make the business side of hyperlocal journalism as painless and easy as Wordpress makes the publishing. Add value instead of extracting it.
And if you treat me like a human being, I'd be proud to be your first customer.