The Guardian, one of the world’s most forward-thinking newspapers, has been conducting some interesting online experiments recently, including a cool little tweetbot that answers your questions by finding stories in the news, and its attempt to open up news production.
But one of the most interesting trials could be a new hyperlocal service called n0tice that the company is putting through its paces.
The site, which is currently running in invite-only beta, is an attempt to create a publishing platform based on location — and it uses the metaphor of a community noticeboard to get there. People can sign up to create their own board, customize it, leave messages, place small ads, anything they like. In a way it harks back to the days of BBS, but with all the bells and whistles you might expect from a website in 2011.
Testers, mainly in the U.K. where most of the focus is, are starting to use it for a range of different things: whether it’s existing local bloggers giving it a trial run, people selling items, listing events in their community, reporting road closures, and so on.
And there’s a business model too: while small ads are free to run, companies that want to target users pick a location and pay depending on how far they want their message to spread.
It’s certainly a departure for The Guardian, which has largely focused on content over platforms — and the end result is a hybrid with some serious potential. It’s part blogging platform, part Craigslist, part communal Twitter stream, part forum, part event listing. Work clearly needs to be done on some areas, and the emphasis is likely to shift over time, as more and more users come in and shape it — but the real question is whether it becomes more than the sum of its parts, or less.
Hyperlocal has long been something media companies have talked about as a way to save themselves, yet in reality it has struggled to really make its mark. On a micro scale, a number of local media properties have done this very well over the years — sites like McKinney, Texas’s Townsquarebuzz or Howard Owens’s The Batavian, say — but in order to be sustainable for a large media organization, hyperlocal needs to scale. That’s part of what convinced MSNBC to buy and relaunch EveryBlock, a data aggregation service that promised to make important local news available to you.
But where EveryBlock was all about data, n0tice is about people.
“I love Everyblock, it’s a real inspiration, actually,” explains Matt McAlister, who is running n0tice from his lofty perch as director of digital strategy for The Guardian‘s parent company, Guardian Media Group. “But I wanted to go as far in the opposite direction as I could in terms of aggregation, at least at the start. We may be wrong about that choice, but I’d like to think that people will be interested in participating on n0tice in part because it’s their space to make.”
He adds that it’s also different from other services that it shares similarities to, such as AOL’s often-derided Patch.
“It’s different from Patch in lots of ways, but one significant difference is that anyone can own a noticeboard, kind of like WordPress. It’s totally open that way. It’s different Craigslist in that it feels like a more holistic view of what’s happening the local area, not just things that people are trading.”
Still, with The Guardian behind it, a lot of people are going to be watching n0tice to see what happens. There are a few things that are worth thinking about that should be taken into account, though.
First, the UK classifieds market is far more disjointed than, say, America. Craigslist — so often invoked as the scourge of the U.S. news industry — is not just weak, it’s more or less non-existent. Sites such as the eBay-owned Gumtree are more powerful but not entirely embedded.
Second, the idea that newspapers have failed to compete with Craigslist — as posited in this piece at the Nieman Journalism Lab — also carries less weight in the U.K. Britain’s Daily Mail, for example, has been active in the small ads online for years with the likes of loot.com and has a growing property website empire.
Third, the real competition for a service like n0tice may ultimately be from social networks like Facebook or Twitter, where communities of interest already coalesce. McAlister’s argument here is that n0tice doesn’t have to beat social networks, it just has to be open enough.
“We haven’t really viewed what we’re doing in a competitive landscape, but rather approaching a common real world problem that doesn’t seem to have been solved yet. Given the open nature of the platform we’re building, I imagine we’ll be able to do a lot with WordPress and Twitter and Foursquare and any other open platform.”
Some seeds of where this thinking might go can be traced through his own work. Before being catapulted to run group-wide digital strategy, McAlister helped architect the Guardian Open Platform system — which attempts to turn the news into an API. Prior to that he was director of the Yahoo Developer Network and at the intersection of publishing and the web with The Industry Standard and Infoworld.
He confirms that combining with other services will be important as n0tice grows. A read API is about to be launched and they’re working on a write API too. Meanwhile, it will be important to connect to existing social networks and sources of activity. “We have done some lightweight hooks so far, but clearly there will be some fun things we can do with Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook et cetera,” he says.
Staying power needed
Still, even if n0tice gains traction, the longer term issue may be whether it has support. After all, The Guardian‘s approach to the local market and small ads has lurched one way and then another over the last few years — it sold off its regional news operation for £44m, sold half of its sizeable classifieds business Trader Media, and launched and then closed a series of local blogs.
It’s not the only one: large news organizations including the New York Times and Washington Post have launched attempts at hyperlocal platforms or services, only to shut them down soon afterwards. Even with support from the top, does the company really have the willpower to get stuck into hyperlocal and stay there?
“My hope is that the advertising model we’re working on will support the investment people make in n0tice,” says McAlister. “If that’s the case then it will at least be sustainable, if not actually a generative platform — something that gets stronger the more people use it.”