Most hyper-local news startups have tended to take one of two main approaches: one focused on mechanized aggregation using algorithms, and the other based primarily on content produced by human beings. EveryBlock, which was founded in 2007 by programmer and former Washington Post staffer Adrian Holovaty, started out in the first category, pulling together feeds of news and government data such as crime reports based on specific locations. But with Monday’s relaunch, Holovaty says he is trying hard to move the service in the opposite direction and focus more on the people in a community rather than the data.
To do that, the site — which was acquired by MSNBC in 2009 — has undergone a redesign from top to bottom, with new features that make it more obvious that comments from members are encouraged and to reward those who participate. (Users can click a button to “thank” a submitter, for example.) Holovaty said in an interview that users were able to post comments on the old version of the site, but that function was “bolted on and not really that easy to use” so didn’t get a lot of participation. The new commenting function is front and center, he says, and EveryBlock has also built a reputation system that will rank users based on their interaction with the site.
Holovaty — who also developed the popular Django web framework — admitted he has changed the way he thinks about the purpose of EveryBlock. In the beginning, he says, he thought that simply accumulating a lot of detailed information about neighborhoods in cities like Chicago (where the company is based) would be enough to build something useful for people. But he no longer believes this. In a live-chat at the Poynter Institute site on Tuesday, he said:
It may be kind of obtuse, but I have stopped believing that “You’re more informed” is an end. It’s a means to a different end, if that makes any sense. There’s probably a bigger lesson in here somewhere for journalism.
The end goal now, Holovaty says, is to help members of a community make their neighborhood a better place by giving them information about things that are happening — but also a forum for discussing that news, whether it’s a report of a break-in or a zoning change somewhere. “We’re shifting from being a news feed to being a platform for discussion around neighborhood news,” he said. The realization that pure information wasn’t enough came from listening to feedback from users, he said, who wanted a way to express themselves as well as just the data about what was happening.
I think EveryBlock’s change of heart was a necessary one. I’ve argued in the past that whatever value local news sites have comes not from the data, but from the people at the heart of that community — which is why even poorly designed services that are built by the people in a town or neighborhood are almost always better than services that are set up by companies with a one-size-fits-all approach. History is littered with examples of well-meaning services such as Backfence and Bayosphere that never really connected with the communities they were supposed to serve.
Even Topix, which was originally created as an automated aggregator of content for local sites, eventually discovered — as CEO Chris Tolles mentioned in an interview with me recently — that it had actually become a sounding board for residents of small towns and regions across the U.S. to talk about their elected officials or other issues. Becoming that kind of community hub is something AOL is going to have to figure out how to do with Patch as well, which it has spent an estimated $100 million on rolling out to almost 1,000 locations. Buying Outside.in, which also took the automated approach to local news, might help generate content but it isn’t going to generate community.
The big question is whether EveryBlock can succeed in this new direction. Despite the redesign, the site’s local hubs still feel very mechanical or automated, and one or two comments from residents of those areas isn’t going to suddenly make it feel like a community service. It’s going to take a lot of work to turn EveryBlock into a people-centered place instead of a computer-generated simulation of a community.