Despite a history of dismal failures, hyperlocal news continues to attract believers

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Hyper-local news doesn’t exactly have a great track record — at least, not as a business. There’s a litany of failed attempts that stretches back at least a decade, including ventures like Backfence and more recent flame-outs like AOL’s Patch, which chewed through almost half a billion dollars. But that hasn’t stopped entrepreneurs from trying to make it work. Among the latest efforts are a bevy of Brooklyn-based blogs and a new project from Jim Brady, a former Washington Post digital executive who knows a thing or two about failure.

Brady’s project is still in the formative stages, but at the moment it is called Brother.ly, and it’s aimed at the Philadelphia news market, based in part at Temple University’s Center for Public Interest Journalism. And if there is a region that seems to need help in the local news department, Philadelphia definitely qualifies: the city’s leading newspaper has suffered from a rather dramatic decline, not to mention boardroom antics among its owners.

In an interview with the Poynter Institute, Brady said that he is investing “in the mid six figures” of his own money in Brother.ly, and that despite the less-than-impressive history of hyperlocal news ventures — including the ones he himself has been involved in — he is optimistic about his chances:

“The best that could happen is I go off and I build this thing and it’s really successful. The second best thing that could happen is I build this thing and it fails. But the worst thing is I get halfway and never find out.”

First TBD, then Project Thunderdome

Getting halfway and never finding out is not a bad description of what happened to the two large — and much-celebrated — hyperlocal news ventures that Brady helmed that eventually cratered and/or were shut down: the first was known as TBD, a project backed by businessman Robert Allbritton that planned to cover the Washington D.C. area, in part via a partnership with local blogs. Before it even managed to hit its stride, however, it was dismantled by Allbritton, due to what appeared to be a lack of faith in the financial viability of the model.

Project Thunderdome

From there, Brady moved to Digital First Media — owner of a string of daily and weekly papers in the U.S. Northeast, and run by digital-first evangelist John Paton — where he started something called Project Thunderdome, an effort to centralize some of the coverage and content (and skills) that were required by its chain of largely small-town newspapers. In April, Digital First shut the project down, saying the financial returns didn’t justify the resources invested in it.

Brady told Poynter that the failure of TBD has been in the back of his mind ever since it ended, in part because he believes the approach could have worked — and Brother.ly will involve many of the same aspects, including a network of local blogs. The idea is to create a site with a strong connection to a local readership, Brady said, and not just one that tries to monetize its relationship with readers via advertising, but one with multiple revenue models based on community: member forums that readers can belong to, live events that bring the community together, and so on. He said the idea is to “monetize passions, not pageviews.”

Hyperlocal has to be about community

The concept of organizing a local blog network as part of a hyperlocal news strategy is also behind a media venture called Corner Media, which the New York Times recently profiled. The company, which is run by blogger and editor Liena Zagare, operates a number of Brooklyn neighborhood blogs such as South Slope News and Fort Greene Focus that reach a combined readership of about 250,000. And now Ned Burke, who started and ran two local blogs — Sheepshead Bites and Bensonhurst Bean — has merged his properties with Corner Media.

Corner Media

Zagare actually ran a series of similar hyperlocal blogs and sold it to Patch in 2011, and worked for the AOL unit as a director of special projects before leaving to start another blog network. “It makes me sad to look at Patch, because I think it can work,” she told the Times. Although her network is not profitable, Berke’s blogs apparently are, and he told the paper he believes there is “a business in doing good for the community.” And being embedded in those communities is a huge part of the model, both said. As the NYT put it:

“The blogs tell you when the local subway lines are not running, mount minicampaigns to fix up playgrounds and traffic lights, and list ways for residents to contact elected officials and city agencies. They cheer for the new restaurants spotted around the neighborhood, highlight local events and profile community notables.”

Although there have been many failures both large and small in the hyperlocal news market, there have also been some success stories — sites like Howard Owens’ Batavian, the West Seattle blog or Baristanet — and in almost every case they are not large industrial projects like Patch but what Zagare describes (and I have also described) as “artisanal” journalism, driven by individuals with a keen interest in their communities. Whether Corner Media and Brother.ly will join the list of success stories or the list of ambitious failures remains to be seen.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Digital Vision

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