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.

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07. November 2009 by Mark
Categories: hyperlocal, rural journalism | Tags: , , , , , | 15 comments

  • http://stephanieromanski.com Steph

    This is something I’ve struggled with myself. Most of the ideas and cool things being done in journalism tend to advise folks working in or near metro areas. Trying to equate those ideas for a market like ours in Central Nebraska can be pretty difficult.

    But you’ve hit the nail on the head with your comment about us needing to introduce the idea of taking that coffeeshop conversation online. The question becomes how do we do that for so many communities spread out over such a wide area? How do we provide the manpower to grow those online communities?

    Is it even our job to get them talking online? Or is it our job to teach them how to bring their small communities online and let them have at it once they’re there?

    So many questions.

  • http://capitolhillseattle.com Justin Carder

    Interesting essay (and I didn’t even find it via my Google vanity alerts! ‘hyperlocal’ twitter search instead :) )

    I often tell people that my model for CHS is The Ukiah Daily Journal. I read every page of my tiny hometown daily (not a challenge!) for 14 years until I left home for college. Daily police blotter first, of course. Then letters to the editor. The a look through the classifieds to see who in town was getting rid of their baseball cards.

    So while I’m trying to build a small town daily in ‘the big city,’ small town dailies and indie journalists are trying to build something like the hyperlocal sites you find in Seattle. And we all think the other side has it easier. For example, because of its large population, Seattle’s presence in services like Yelp, flickr and Twitter is really strong. Even in Seattle there are only 24 hours in the day — how many hours can you ask a people to consume and contribute to online communities. Poor big city hyperlocals!

    I often have daydreams of taking my business to a small town that is hungry for community. I imagine the good townspeople carrying me in celebration to receive the key to the city. Then I read your essay and remember there’s another side to the equation. As much as it’s a challenge, I’m also lucky to have such a strong online culture in my community. But you should also know that I have envy of your opportunity.

    Part of the premise of my post you link to is that small players in the local news business need to find ways to add to, connect to and feature the growing network of content and conversation that is being created by the people our businesses are trying to serve. I won’t argue with you if you say that conversation isn’t happening in a strong way in your area yet. But I also have to wonder if it there is a conversation already in motion in services like Facebook. That’s a start and there’s not shame in connecting to it and adding to it. You don’t always have to start the conversation if you do a good job of adding to it.

    I hope at least! Want to keep my daydream alive :)

    • Mark

      Justin: Thanks for your comment. It’s awesome to hear that you take the connection between rural and urban hyperlocal journalism so closely to heart. I wish more would.

      I actually think you’re right: Hyperlocal journalism is probably tougher in Seattle than in someplace like Central City. That “Why it’s easier” side — along with your points about info overload — outweighs the “Why it’s harder” side in my book. Just look at Howard and The Batavian — it seems as though he’s already overcome the primary rural-specific challenge to hyperlocal journalism. Believe me, I don’t envy you. :)

      As for the conversation already started on Facebook, Steph and I (the first commenter, who’s my paper’s online editor) have been talking about how to integrate that. I actually don’t feel a particularly strong obligation to own the conversation around the news in places like Central City, because it’s not the town in which we publish, and there are about 75 other towns like it on my beat. But I think your point applies well to Grand Island — the town of about 45,000 in which we do publish — and I hope we can keep finding ways to strengthen our online connection to the community here. If we come up with some brilliant idea or learn from some miserable failure, we’ll be sure to let you know!

  • http://www.thebatavian.com Howard Owens

    With The Batavian, I think we do own the conversation. That’s the feedback I get all the time from local residents.

    That said, I think you’re on the right track in discussing the difference between rural online news sites and their suburban siblings.

    • Mark

      Howard: Based on what little I know of The Batavian (mainly reading your blog and your Twitter feed), I think you’re right. And in that respect, I think you’re way ahead of most rural efforts at local news.

      That’s probably at least partially because you’re a web-native news organization that fundamentally understands the nature of online communities. The vast majority of rural local news orgs, on the other hand, are “digital immigrants” (if they have any digital presence at all) that simply don’t get the ethic of the web and the extraordinary value it could provide them.

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  • Nathan Maton

    Great piece, I thought you made one assumption that should have been explained… why local rural papers will die. You claim that hyperlocal in rural is harder online because people don’t look for news there. So why is the status quo not going to survive?

    • Mark

      Good catch, Nathan. The short answer is this: Most rural towns are old. Like, really old. Several of the small rural towns I cover have a median age as many as 15 years older than the metro areas in Nebraska. So the status quo can only last as long as those people stay alive, since there are few young people staying/moving in to replace them.

      If those small-town papers keep ignoring the web, they’ll be fine in the short term, but as soon as that older, non-internet-native population dies off (for lack of a more tactful term) they’ll be in the same situation the rest of newspapers are in, which is to say: big trouble.

  • http://www.genomealberta.ca Mike Spear

    Good post and good points.
    When I first started in journalism ( before the Internet ) I lived a quick walk from the radio and TV station where I worked. After producing a lot of shows and covering a lot of stories in a lot of places, I wanted out of the city and started an outward migration. However until I finally left the CBC a few years ago I had an oddly schizophrenic life producing stories and programs for the city that were of only marginal use to my neighbours.
    As the Internet was gaining steam, everyone was on dial-up so rural and city folks were on an equal digital footing.
    Not so anymore.
    High speed is not likely to ever make it to my doorstep (satellite is decent but no substitute) and more and more digital tools assume high speed connections, newer computers, and probably a Best Buy store close by to get the gadgets.
    There is so much more at work than a discussion about hyperlocal or the future of journalism can cover. It is a digital divide that is also about technology, lifestyle, and what matters most.
    Small town papers aren’t really “ignoring” the web as much as they are responding to audience need and the rural audience feels isn’t banging on the digital door demanding a web site.
    That too is good and bad. Good that they have lots of interests that aren’t digital and care about their neighbours, and bad that they are falling behind the technology curve.
    Rural Nebraska or rural anywhere is a long way from people who write about the future of journalism, the future of social media, and sadly the future of many things.
    Thanks for the post and keeping my neighbours in mind.

    Mike

    • Mark

      Yes! I have to try to keep my eyes from glazing over every time I read another breathless report on the newest journalism-related iPhone app, since I don’t think I know a single person in this state outside of Omaha who has an iPhone. (Not to say that there aren’t any — there’s just no reception for AT&T out here.) That’s why I like Dan Gillmor’s suggestion last week that the subsidy that the American government should provide for journalism is in bandwidth, not news production.

      I would agree that small-town papers have more of a reason to ignore the web, but even if the audience isn’t demanding a website, that doesn’t necessarily mean one wouldn’t succeed. I think that even many people who live in less-wired parts of the (Western) world have a desire to talk about their local news online, even if they don’t know they have it.

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