Even as local newspapers scale back their efforts and shed staff, media companies as disparate as AOL and Allbritton Communications are ramping up hyperlocal media moves to cover school boards, community meetings, neighborhood politics, high school sports as well as local dining, entertainment and commerce. Industry watchers see local content as providing an essential media link between local business and the consumers they are trying to reach. We talked to industry consultant and hyperlocal media specialist Mel Taylor about the burgeoning trend.
What’s the thinking behind the national rollout of a hyperlocal network like AOL’s Patch?
Patch first and foremost looks on the surface to be an initiative from AOL to — for lack of a better word — replace the local newspaper, to become the local news and information source. It looks like that’s what their game plan is — to play the role of community news and information source. Their primary goal, which is easily lost on many observers, is to go after local advertising dollars. That’s exactly the same business model as Groupon. That’s the same model as Google Places. Gannett has an offering. Tribune does it too.
Tribune launched 435 Digital, a subsidiary that offers local businesses search engine marketing, social reputation management and online video production. They’re smart to do that because lots of businesses are buying that kind of stuff. Patch is using news and information as a means to an end — that end is to go after the large amount of local advertising dollars that are sitting on the sidelines in most markets.
What does AOL’s acquisition of the Huffington Post mean for Patch and AOL’s local efforts in general?
It will play a pretty major role in Patch. The reason why AOL thought purchasing the Huffington Post was a good idea was because [AOL Chairman] Tim Armstrong and Arianna Huffington have similar ideas on how to deal with content efficiently and effectively, using all the tools of the Web. The Huffington Post has superior technology they developed — and they have been very successful in using social technology to drive tons of page views and unique users through commenting and sharing. That is something you will probably see being instituted across all the Patch sites. It’s not just a content play — it’s also a technology play.
Overall, we’re coming to a time of consolidation, with the best premium independent properties being acquired. With Huffington Post, they’re already profitable. They’re proof that you can be profitable with a mixture of technology, aggregation and proprietary journalism.
Are there advantages to being digital-only or being national? What can local companies and legacy media companies bring to bear?
There is a benefit from being a giant national company — you can share resources. Being digital-only — there’s a benefit to that. You don’t have to worry about your printing press, your delivery trucks, getting ink. But newspapers, traditional media, while they have legacy hard costs such as buildings, trucks and printing presses, one huge advantage they have is their ability to tap into their brand equity in the market. They’ve been in the market for a long period of time. They have large sales forces and relationships with community and businesses. These are all things that outside pure-play companies wish they had. Newspapers have so many great assets, but it is a challenge for them to grow their digital businesses and not throw their legacy businesses out the window.
So it sounds like right now is an exciting time to be working in hyperlocal media.
It’s awesome. It’s scary. Everybody is much more open to discussing the opportunities, whereas a year or two ago, there was an overconfidence or some dismissiveness. But that’s a thing of the past. The year 2011 has brought a more serious understanding of the digital landscape. It is rare for me to find any newspaper or TV station or radio station that blows off these competitors.
Mel Taylor will be a featured discussion leader at the American Press Institute seminar, “The Battle for Community: Crowded, Competitive and Hyperlocal,” taking place in Reston, Va., March 7 to March 8. Click here for more information and to register.