Why hyperlocal journalism is easier – and harder – in rural areas
Every once in a while, I read an article that reminds me just how far rural Nebraska is from the world inhabited by most of the people who write about media. That was the case this week with Justin Carder’s piece on Seattle’s teeming hyperlocal news ecosystem, “Will Hyperlocal Ever Scale? One Entrepreneur’s Story,” at paidContent.
Carder runs CapitolHillSeattle.com, a neighborhood blog, and he writes about the “indie-news scene” of “more than 40 independent, online-only news sites operating in Seattle, not to mention the other 40 or so corporate, big-media plays active in the area.” He paints a picture of a frenetic life of chasing down scanner traffic, tracking local Twitter updates and guarding his advertisers against a local TV station that’s trying to lure them to its hyperlocal coverage of the same area.
This is, in general terms, is exactlly what media thinkers are talking about when they talk about hyperlocal journalism. They’re talking about it within an urban/suburban context, with the sphere of coverage being defined as a neighborhood, a region of a city, or a suburb or two. There’s tons of hyperlocal journalism going on in the 16 counties of rural Nebraska that I cover, too, but none of it falls under this definition, and I’ve rarely seen this style of hyperlocal news discussed when we talk about the future of journalism.
Most of this journalism is being done by small-town weekly (and sometimes daily) newspapers, almost all of which have been doing hyperlocal journalism since decades before it became a buzzword. They’ve been writing about new businesses, scanner reports, local zoning meetings, birth announcements and even who’s-hanging-out-with-whom gossip for a small, dedicated audience long enough to become an inextricable, essential part of the towns they’re in. Sounds like hyperlocal done right, no?
But like their larger fellow newspapers, these outlets are struggling. Much of what they produce can be described as press-release journalism at best, and very few of them have developed any sort of meaningful online presence. Their situation is far less dire right now, but in the long run — as Carrie Brown-Smith has pointed out — they’re staring into the same economic and social forces that have decimated the nation’s major metro dailies.
So what do they do about it? Surely some of the experiences of people like Carder can be instructive for the 2,000-circulation small-town weekly your grandmother still reads, right? Here’s my attempt to bridge the gap between the two. I’ll start with the big reason quality, future-oriented hyperlocal journalism is easier in rural settings, then I’ll move on to what makes it harder.
Why good hyperlocal journalism is easier in rural small towns
You’re starting off with a clearly defined community that already identifies itself as such. When I went to college in the massive Chicago suburbs, I was always amazed (and annoyed) by how invisibly each suburb connected to each other. You could drive through six different suburbs and have no idea that you were moving from one to the other were it not for the signs telling you where you were.
Contrast that with rural Nebraska, where every town is its own discrete entity, with a separate history and at least seven miles of cornfields and pastures between it and its nearest neighbor. It’s impossible here to go from one town to another without realizing that you’re entering a community that is distinct from the last one you were in.
The implications of the difference for journalism are clear: One of the first challenges of urban/suburban hyperlocal journalism is convincing your audience that the community you cover is a distinct one with which they should identify. Carder’s success in creating an online news community for the Capitol Hill neighborhood, for example, is at least partly dependent on Capitol Hill residents to identify themselves primarily as part of Capitol Hill, not just central Seattle or Seattle as a whole.
Capitol Hill’s long history and countercultural background might make that easy, but consider again the Chicago suburbs, where the average, say, North Barrington resident is far more likely to identify herself as a Chicagoan or a suburban resident of “Chicagoland.” (Hence the existence of the amorphously suburban Daily Herald.) If you’re trying to start up a Barrington-area hyperlocal news org, that’s a significant obstacle to finding and gathering a community of reader/contributors.
This problem is eliminated in rural, small-town settings: There’s no question whatsoever which community people belong to, and which they identify with. A sense of community tied to one’s town is extremely deeply entrenched, making for fertile ground for local news organizations. And many times, as I wrote earlier, there’s already a local news organization that’s firmly attached to that community, with a hard-earned cachet built up.
Why good hyperlocal journalism is harder in rural small towns
In most cases, you don’t own the conversation around your news, and people aren’t used to going online to talk about it. Carder’s community is already inclined to consume and talk about local news online; his challenge is to get them to do at his site. If they aren’t visiting CapitolHillSeattle and they care about news in their area, chances are they’re getting it online from one of the other 80 or so local news organizations in the city. In Seattle, especially, people have been going online to get local news and talking about it there for oh, about a decade. It’s simply a reflexive part of their news consumption.
Contrast that with Central City, Neb., pop. 3,000 or so, where my wife grew up. You’ll notice that I linked to the town’s Wikipedia page; that’s because, like many in the area I cover, its local weekly newspaper doesn’t have a website. The city’s page has a decent amount of basic community information, but there’s no place online to get or talk about local happenings. (The closest is the school district’s website, where you can read the monthly newsletter and daily announcements, or my paper’s site, though I’m in Central City only occasionally and there’s nowhere on the site to talk about the news you do find.)
In most small towns, the conversation surrounding the news lives at the cafe, at high school basketball games, at the bank, at church. It does not live online. It’s critical that small-town news orgs capture that conversation online, where they can grow from and be informed by it.
But they face a much more difficult challenge than Carder does: They have to introduce to their communities the idea of talking about local news online. And getting your audience to talk about local news online in th—e first place is asking for a much bigger leap than getting them to simply talk about it at Site A rather than Site B.