The closure of TBD.com, a Washington-based hyperlocal news site, is garnering attention from critics and naysayers as proof the localized type of coverage is not viable.
Loyalist College e-journalism professor Robert Washburn offers a different point of view by wading into the ongoing debate.
By Robert Washburn
The demise of hyperlocal new site TBD.com shouldn’t be a
harbinger of the future for this emerging form.
Matthew Ingram provides an excellent analysis and summary of
the Washington-focused news site, laying out a number of viewpoints and
resources to provide sufficient picture of what was going on and what possibly
Alan Mutter’s critique, under the blog Newsosaur, points out
the small audiences, big expenses and low revenues as reasons for the failure
of hyperlocal news. Rick Emonds, at the Poynter Institue, also jumps in with
his analysis, stating the importance of branding, effective ad sales and the
need to fill a hole in local coverage as factors. Notably, TBD.com was hoping
its journalistic pedigree would equal success, as Emonds points out. Washington
Post journalist Jim Brady left to work on TBD.com., however he left after a
The analyses are good ones and the points being made are
important. But, it misses a major point. Hyperlocal news is not about
journalism in big cities. It is about neighbourhoods, hamlets, villages, towns
and small cities. Even OpenFile.ca, one of the more successful new ventures
online admits it is not hyperlocal journalism. While it produces a lot of
great, innovative, experimental types of journalism, Wilf Dinnick is clear this
is not a hyperlocal project.
He is right. The site covers a lot of news left behind by
mainstream news organizations in the city. And it brings some very local issues
into the light, which the mainstream media then jump on. But, it does not make
Hyperlocal can best be described as community journalism’s
migration online. That should not mean it is the mere transfer of community
newspaper content to the web. Far from it.
Hyperlocal leverages the low cost of online production with
a type of journalism focusing on the news within a specific geographic
community. It is meant to offer an alternative to the mega-chains, who are busy
consolidating smaller newspapers, radio stations and television, to offer an
alternative. The corporate news products
are forced to coverage larger, often more regional, geographic areas in order
to remain fiscally viable. Hyperlocal remains narrow in its focus.
Again, the purpose is to focus on stories being missed. And
considering the size of newsrooms in some of these communities, plenty of
stories up for grabs, through no fault of the staff.
But, it also works with in a much tighter relationship with
its audience. It is hard to imagine any site in a large urban centre like
Washington connecting with its audience in the same manner as a site like
Cramahe Now, a hyperlocal news site for the village of Colborne (pop. 4,500)
about 1.5 hours east of Toronto. It was started after Sun Media closed down the
Colborne Chronicle, which served the community for nearly 100 years,
amalgamating it with several other historic newspapers in the region. While it is not the most sophisticated design, it is functional and it is loved by the community.
The economic model is also very different. While many argue
the fiscal viability of these publication remains with traditional advertising,
other means of raising revenue are being ignored. When a news site serves a
small community, it is more about the public service than it is an economic
one. Subscriptions are a main source as people donate money to ensure the
site’s viability. The residents highly value having someone in the community
providing news on their behalf.
Advertisers also take a different tact. Rather than worrying
so much about revenues generated by traditional types of advertisement, it is
viewed more as a community service, similar to sponsoring a hockey or baseball
team. The associated prestige outweighs the rate of return. Besides, there are
just too many other venues for more effective advertising.
Mutter and Emonds are right in many ways about TBD.com’s
failure. But it is wrong to send hyperlocal news to the junk heap just yet.
There are far too many opportunities in the neighbourhoods, villages, towns and
small cities throughout rural Canada. It is just a matter of time for
entrepreneurial journalists to step up and realize the opportunity and run with