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If your local newspaper shuts down, what will take the place of its coverage? Perhaps a package of information about your neighborhood, or even your block, assembled by a computer.
The sites, like EveryBlock, Outside.in, Placeblogger and Patch, collect links to articles and blogs and often supplement them with data from local governments and other sources. They might let a visitor know about an arrest a block away, the sale of a home down the street and reviews of nearby restaurants.
Internet companies have been trying to develop such sites for more than a decade, in part as a way to lure local advertisers to the Web. But the notion of customized news has taken on greater urgency as some newspapers, like The Rocky Mountain News and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, have stopped printing.
The news business “is in a difficult time period right now, between what was and what will be,” said Gary Kebbel, the journalism program director for the Knight Foundation, which has backed 35 local Web experiments. “Our democracy is based upon geography, and we believe local information is such a core need for our democracy to survive.”
Of course, like traditional media, the hyperlocal sites have to find a way to bring in sufficient revenue to support their business. And so far, they have had only limited success selling ads. Some have shouldered the cost of fielding a sales force to reach mom-and-pop businesses that may know nothing about online advertising.
One problem is that the number of readers for each neighborhood-focused news page is inherently small. “When you slice further and further down, you get smaller and smaller audiences,” said Greg Sterling, an analyst who has followed the hyperlocal market for a decade. “Advertisers want that kind of targeting, but they also want to reach more people, so there’s a paradox.”
Still, said Peter Krasilovsky, a program director at the Kelsey Group, which studies local media, many small businesses have never advertised outside the local Yellow Pages and are an untapped online ad market whose worth his firm expects to double to $32 billion by 2013.
One of the most ambitious hyperlocal sites is EveryBlock, a six-person start-up in an office building in Chicago overlooking noisy El tracks, which is stitching together this hyperlocal future one city at a time. Backed by a $1.1 million grant from the Knight Foundation, it has created sites for 11 American cities, including New York, Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco.
It fills those sites with links to news articles and posts from local bloggers, along with data feeds from city governments, with crime reports, restaurant inspections, and notices of road construction and film shoots. (The New York Times has a partnership with EveryBlock to help New York City readers find news about their elected officials.)
One day last week, the EveryBlock page for Adrian Holovaty, the company’s founder, showed that the police had answered a domestic battery call two blocks from his home and that a gourmet sandwich shop four blocks away had failed a city health inspection.
“We have a very liberal definition of what is news. We think it’s something that happens in your neighborhood,” said Mr. Holovaty, 28, who worked at The Washington Post before creating EveryBlock two years ago.
In some ways the environment is right for these start-ups. In the last several years, neighborhood blogs have sprouted across the country, providing the sites with free, ready-made content they can link to. And new tools, like advanced search techniques and cellphones with GPS capability, help the sites figure out which articles to show to which readers in which neighborhoods.
Unlike most hyperlocal start-ups, Patch, based in New York, hires reporters. It was conceived of and bankrolled by Tim Armstrong, the new chief of AOL, after he found a dearth of information online about Riverside, Conn., where he lives. Patch has created sites for three towns in New Jersey and plans to be in dozens by the end of the year.
One journalist in each town travels to school board meetings and coffee shops with a laptop and camera. Patch also solicits content from readers, pulls in articles from other sites and augments it all with event listings, volunteer opportunities, business directories and lists of local information like recycling laws.
“We believe there’s currently a void in the amount, quality and access to information at the community level, a function, unfortunately, of all the major metros suffering and pulling back daily coverage of a lot of communities,” said Jon Brod, co-founder and chief executive of Patch. This month, the home page of The Star-Ledger’s Web site, based in Newark, twice referred to articles first reported by Patch.
Outside.in publishes no original content. The company gathers articles and blog posts and scans them for geographical cues like the name of a restaurant or indicative words like “at” or “near.” An iPhone application lets users read articles about events within a thousand of feet of where they are standing. Outside.in, which is based in Brooklyn, licenses feeds of links to big news sites that want to deepen their local coverage, like that of NBC’s Chicago affiliate.
Venture capital firms have invested $7.5 million in the company, partly on the bet that it can cut deals with newspapers to have their sales forces sell neighborhood-focused ads for print and the Web.
One hurdle is the need for reliable, quality content. The information on many of these sites can still appear woefully incomplete. Crime reports on EveryBlock, for example, are short on details of what happened. Links to professionally written news articles on Outside.in are mixed with trivial and sometimes irrelevant blog posts.
That raises the question of what these hyperlocal sites will do if newspapers, a main source of credible information, go out of business. “They rely on pulling data from other sources, so they really can’t function if news organizations disappear,” said Steve Outing, who writes about online media for Editor & Publisher Online.
But many hyperlocal entrepreneurs say they are counting on a proliferation of blogs and small local journalism start-ups to keep providing content.
“In many cities, the local blog scene is so rich and deep that even if a newspaper goes away, there would be still be plenty of stuff for us to publish,” said Mr. Holovaty of EveryBlock.