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Summary:

Hyper-local site EveryBlock started out as an automated news aggregator, pulling in feeds based on specific locations. But founder Adrian Holovaty says he has realized that data is nothing without human interaction, and so the site has relaunched with more of a focus on community.

Everyblock-screenshot5

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.

  1. I disagree, but concede that I’m probably in the minority. As a user I’m looking for useful information to help me make informed choices in life. I’m much less concerned about what Joe Public thinks–the Web doesn’t need another site filled with hateful and uninformed opinions, childish political arguments and NIMBY diatribes.

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    1. There’s definitely a downside to that kind of interaction, but I think for many people that is what communities and neighborhoods are all about — for better or worse.

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  2. phew!

    got through the entire article without seeing the word “pivot”.

    sweet.

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    1. Yes, I deliberately avoided that — but don’t think I wasn’t tempted :-)

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  3. Maybe I’m crazy, but I can’t see any “hyper-local news startup” achieving what should be achieved with local news. These companies are national companies without a core interest in the community, whether they hire some locals or not. Local news needs to be grass roots local companies who live in and care about their communities, who aren’t answering to some disconnected national company.

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    1. mindctrl: So you’re telling me you don’t rely on San-Francisco-based Yelp for restaurant reviews, or Mountain-View-based Google for a map of your neighborhood, or Sunnyvale-based Yahoo for your neighborhood Yahoo Group, right? :-)

      Adrian @ EveryBlock

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      1. Adrian, nice try. :)

        There’s a big difference in reviews and news. Nationals have always been the map distributors. Yahoo? Does anyone use Yahoo? :)

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  4. After reading article (very informative, good job) and visiting the site, I don’t think the service offers a set of features that worthily differentiates itself from stronger competition. Its functions are redundant of just about every social media site. Further, its redesign doesn’t seem to have a revolutionary effect on the way its content will be considered once consumed in comparison to other sites.

    With that said, the service that takes a radical approach to local news delivery and consumption will be the one to truly change the way we interact at the hyper-local level.

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  5. It definitely has potentional as long as it figures out you have to have some rules and decorum. Topix, while perhaps successful to a degree is not considered a news aggregator by most because there is very limited news on its sites. It has become one of the most vile, disgusting places on the internet because many of the forums are nothing but straight up gossip and attacks on people. It isn’t many political leaders being attacked, it is children, business owners, etc because the site has something like 400,000 forums but only a handful of moderators and they don’t require registration. They are constantly being subpoened and a ton of negative press is coming out about them. This past week a county down in Tennessee passed an ordinance trying to do something about them. I tell you this to make a point. Some small towns simply don’t have enough news to justify every zipcode needing something like that and for those that do there has to be some rules and regulations or you end up with a trash site which totally goes against what a legit company needs to do.

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  6. Interesting article. I am going to agree with what M said, I am not concerned with what Joe Public thinks as a whole either. Like Sue, the way a site you mentioned, Topix, does things destroys communities and tends to make them all come across in a negative fashion. On the other hand if it is something like Disqus or LiveFrye, a few comments isn’t a bad thing, but what I am really looking for is legitimate news, not who is sleeping with who, entertainment events, etc. I also don’t think that every zipcode nees a local news site. Some towns are small and don’t have much going on. The person who lives in small town America needs to spend their entertainment dollars in midsized towns and cities. That is where the focus needs to be, not providing some forum for a small town in Montana or wherever.

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  7. All attempts thus far by national companies to do local news in numerous communities have failed because they basically turn into news aggregators and forums. News aggregation is done by Google News now, and it’s not particularly great. It still relies on local organizations and disinterested nationals to do the news that they aggregate. And forums are… well… forums. They turn into low quality stuff generally.

    You can’t crowdsource “news”. You end up with reviews and opinions, and that’s not news. “Real” _local_ news is very hard to pull off for national companies without a true presence in the community. The only way to do it is by hiring locals in these communities.

    EveryBlock doesn’t look like news to me. It looks like a content aggregator that’s pulling in public data (inspections, permits, etc), reviews, and is diluting its worth by breaking it down into too many categories. The interface is hard to use and _real_ content discovery is painful.

    If a national company is going to pull off “local news”, it is going to have to hire real local people with a real interest in their community and have boots in the streets. I don’t see it working any other way. Otherwise you’re simply an aggregator with social commenting features.

    Sorry Adrian, but that’s my “review”.

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    1. mindctrl — Have a look at one of our more vibrant neighborhoods: http://chicago.everyblock.com/locations/neighborhoods/old-irving-park/ . It’s got quite a few local residents talking about highly relevant local topics, and this is only two days after our launch.

      I know it’s tough to judge something like EveryBlock because we’re in 16 cities and hundreds of neighborhoods within those cities, and each one has its own set (or lack) of users. I’m sure you checked it in an area that doesn’t have a lot of activity yet. Give us time. We’re just getting started building these communities — the new site is two days old, for gosh sake! :-)

      I’ve also gotta stand up for the Internet and disagree with your dressing down of forums. Sure, there’s a lot of low-quality stuff out there, but not everything. We’re having a high-quality conversation here, for example. The Internet can be used for good. Check out a site called Front Porch Forum for a great example at the local level.

      As for your “breaking it down into too many categories” — that’s one way to look at it. The other way to look at it is that it’s only a single focus: stuff near you. It’s much more focused and targeted than what you’d find on any mainstream media site.

      Adrian @ EveryBlock

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