“Hyper-local” doesn’t mean anything

I just read another news story that quotes a media company using the term “hyper-local”.

Can someone explain to me what the heck this term is supposed to mean? I’ve looked far and wide over the Internet Googled for an explanation, and many of the “definitions” include words like “paradigm” that sound like they explain things but really don’t. In the end all I could find was that “hyper-local” meant “local news”. So why not just call it that? Why make up a new word for something that already exists and has been done for centuries?

Of course, the answer is it’s mostly marketingese, a way for newspaper companies to sound like they’re doing something new and exciting while they cut staff in their newsrooms.

Newspapers can no longer afford to each have their own foreign bureaus. So they concentrate their reporters locally, covering news that they can’t get from wire services. Maybe they’ll have one writer in the state/province or national capital, one on special assignment and one travelling with the local sports team. The rest comes from services like Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse who provide truckloads of content for a hefty annual fee.

(TV is even worse, with a handful of local and national reporters repackaging what was in the newspaper that morning. Most radio newsrooms, meanwhile, consist of a guy reading articles from the local newspaper on air — and maybe crediting the source)

So what’s new then, if reporters are already focused on local stories?

Well, there’s a trend toward “citizen journalism”, in which newspapers setup community websites and encourage its citizens to provide the site with free content. Then they can fire reporters who have the audacity to expect payment for their work.

From a business perspective, it sounds fantastic. It’s cheap, it’s new, and it’s local, so there’s less likely to be a lot of competition.

But from a journalistic perspective, it’s a nightmare: a race to the bottom to see how much news can be “crowdsourced” freely to the community. Investigative journalism, feature writing, fact-checking and objectivity thrown out the window in favour of political name-calling, thinly-veiled press releases and dozens of uninteresting opinions about the plot developments of prime-time TV shows.

Perhaps I’m being a bit too idealistic, but I’m not that worried. Most media companies don’t have the online expertise to understand how to make these websites work. They underestimate the amount of competition they’ll have for even the smallest markets, and they overestimate the quality of journalism that crowdsourcing can provide. They think they can replicate a for-profit version of Wikipedia (or, more accurately, Wikinews) without any incentives for contribution.

What I am worried about is how much further big media is going to sink in quality before real, quality competition from new media starts to emerge. My blog can’t compete with over a hundred experienced journalists at the local paper. But when the local paper is down to three interns and a web forum, that’s going to change.

9 thoughts on ““Hyper-local” doesn’t mean anything

  1. princess iveylocks

    So why not just call it that? Why make up a new word for something that already exists and has been done for centuries?

    Of course, the answer is it’s mostly marketingese […]

    I sure hope you’re being ironic there, Steve-O, because you make up the most words out of anyone I know… despite having multitudinous synonyms readily available in a thesaurus/Great Literary Work/random book nearby.

    Reply
  2. Denis Canuel

    Steve,

    Take a look at the “pot hole paradox” (http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com/the-pothole-paradox.html), it explains about what hyper local is.

    Basically, it’s all about user perception. I care about things going on around my house while you don’t. The pot hole paradox is all about this. If the city fixes the 5 years old pot hole in my street, this is newsworthy for me but totally useless for you (and vice versa).

    I’m curious though, I feel like you’re not a fan of “crowdsourcing” and why not? What you say is totally true: big media are cutting down (especially outside large cities) and i personally feel like this is a logical move. The way I see it however, is that eventually, the media layer will disappear, not the journalist layer.

    I think people like to share stuff. Look at the Youtube’s success- there is crap yes, but there is good stuff too. A crowdsourced newspaper will have the same fate.

    I’m convinced there is a bright future in this direction and that’s why I’m working on this!

    Reply
  3. DAVE ID

    This is the paradigm I was talking about years ago with the MP3 craze and Napster.

    Everybody wants shit for free and this drives down product quality.

    When you go to McDonalds, there’s always some moron who takes a pile of napkins, 4 cups of ketchup, 3 straws for his one drink, a handfull of salt packets and so on. Well the condiments are free to the customer but not to the restaurant. So after a while of all this freeloading one of 2 things will happen. Prices will go up or the product quality will take a dive.

    Same thing with the internazis and the we shouldn’t have to pay for music crowd. Well what’s happened to the music store business? Most of them are gone. Archambault sells more books than CDs. HMV looks more like a DVD store than a music store (funny how the DVD section used to be in the basement stuck in the corner). And I could write a whole article on how downloading music directly destroys musical creativity.

    Well this model spills over everywhere. Why pay when you can get it for free? Why pay for educated journalists when you can get bloggers for free who will gladly do it for hits on their blogs. Just this week I was approached by a marketing firm to write reviews articles on movies for Alliance. This gives them free publicity and I’m supposed to do this just for web traffic? I may just be a blogger but if you want me to write for Alliance, show me the money. But no they want it all for free now.

    It’s the new model, maximize profits by not paying the qualified people for it. I see it in the IT field also at work. People just quit out of desperation. Sad.

    Reply
  4. Fagstein Post author

    “Crowdsourcing” when it comes to news development is based on the assumption that 1,000 amateurs are better at creating news than 10 professional journalists.

    For certain types of journalism, like analysis and aggregation, that’s true. But a quick look at Digg, Fark or other social news sites shows that most of their news still comes from mainstream media sources.

    The other thing you notice when looking at these sites is that the signal-to-noise ratio is very high. Stories about celebrity gossip, the latest iPod design, funny-looking cats and the latest episode of Heroes overwhelm stories about economic policy, world politics and other serious issues.

    If you think journalists are lazy (and they are), imagine the laziness of people being asked to do journalism for nothing. They won’t go through the trouble of going to city hall, or calling all the police departments, or spending time researching leads.

    There are other problems too. Fact-checking, conflicts of interest, objectivity.

    If “hyperlocal” is about providing geographic semantic information with news stories so that they can be compiled in a giant database along with non-news information and allow people to search for stuff geographically, I suppose that’s one thing. But that’s a long way off.

    Reply
  5. Fagstein Post author

    Put it another way: The one advantage newspaper websites inherently have over (most) blogs is authority. This is changing as many professional blogs emerge, whose authors aren’t anonymous and whose agendas are made transparent.

    But anonymous contributors to social news sites by definition can’t be trusted.

    Why should traditional media give up the one advantage they have?

    Reply
  6. AH

    “My blog can’t compete with over a hundred experienced journalists at the local paper. But when the local paper is down to three interns and a web forum, that’s going to change.”

    It already has.
    Just canceled the “free subscription” that the Gazette pushed on us in a paper-wasting act of desperation…I’d much rather get my news through the filter of a couple local (hyperlocal??) bloggers than through the filter of a newspaper’s marketing dept…

    Reply
  7. Fagstein Post author

    A further discussion of this topic (and this post) at YulNews.

    In response, I’ll only mention that there’s a lot of entertainment on YouTube, but very little original journalism. Even the small minority that produce journalistic videos tend to get their news from other (mostly mainstream) sources.

    The problem is simply that you can’t expect to get good stuff from people who aren’t paid for their work. It’s not sustainable.

    Reply
  8. DAVE ID

    Unless they are reporting from issues only they could know about such as whistle blowers or grassroots organizations denouncing local incidents without any reporting by official media.

    The flip side of people getting paid for their work is that they produce what the person signs their checks wants them to produce also. Thats another danger. i.e FauxNews

    Reply
  9. Pingback: Fagstein » Still working on “hyperlocal”

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