National media companies get local

A recent posting by Mitch Winkel on the eMarketer blog discusses a new media trend: going “hyper-local” in an attempt to lure in consumers who have abandoned the traditional newspaper as a source for local news. Hyper-local news is content that covers a very specific, finite geographic area, often a single community or even a neighborhood within a community. Companies exploring the hyper-local marketplace include AOL, Gannett, and a regional media company, Pacific northwest-based Fisher Communications. Sports media giant ESPN has introduced local sports websites for major markets in Dallas, Boston, LA, New York and Chicago. And CNN’s iReport has been encouraging citizen participation in journalism at the local level for nearly four years.

While newspapers long excelled in delivering local news, the Internet is less fertile ground—for now. While online national and international news sites such as CNN.com and Yahoo! news, and newsy, political blogs like Huffington Post and the Drudge Report are wildly popular, the local news scene has been hit-and-miss, depending on whether or not local media established a strong online presence. Social media have filled in the gaps where local media have fallen short, helping users to stay connected with happenings online while sharing information and interacting in real time—something that print newspapers can’t do.

The decision by major media companies like AOL and Gannett to go local from the top down—delivered by a national company to the local market—brings up several questions that remain unanswered. First, what about credibility? Consumers can smell an outsider a mile away. If the hyper-local media offerings put forth by these companies don’t “sound” local, with real local knowledge, then consumers will tune them out.

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For example, many of the traffic and weather reports given during drive-time on AM news talk stations aren’t originating in a “traffic center” in the local studio. They’re being phoned in on a high-quality digital telephone line from a desk at a location that can be hundreds or thousands of miles away. And sometimes it shows—the announcer will mispronounce a town or street name that any local would know. Hiring local writers and reporters will be key to the credibility of these efforts.

Second, local newspapers aren’t ignorant of the fact that local news sells. In an age when the Internet is a far more efficient source for national and international news, offering up-to-the-minute breaking news and a wide variety of perspectives, the local newspaper—and its online counterpart—remain the best place for Little League news, local human interest stories, and other news that the national companies don’t cover well for obvious reasons. They’re sure to mount a strong challenge, paralleling the fight between mom-and-pop retail stores and WalMart in many communities around the country. What’s uncertain is whether the local news media can be more successful than the mom and pop stores have been.

The battle for hyper-local news dominance is worth watching because it’s part of the much broader debate and battle for the future of the publishing industry. Some major players have decided that this is where at least part of their future is at. We’ll see.

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