How not to do hyperlocal

If you’re thinking of making a hyperlocal site, do exactly the opposite of what Gannett is trying to do at several of its publications.

No one can really say what, if anything, will work for a hyperlocal site. But there is a lot we know won’t work.

The American Journalism Review reported last year that Gannett and several other large companies were going to embrace hyperlocal journalism through a myriad of new sites. Gannett and others believe hyperlocal sites can engage more readers and generated more traffic. I agree that hyperlocal could bring back fleeing readers and even expand into new territories.

But only when done well. No one will ever argue that Morris Town This Week or Jersey Shore Now are good sites. Both will most likely lose a lot of money and disengage a lot of journalists. Morristownthisweek.com is run by the Daily Record, while jerseyshorenow.com is run by the Asbury Park Press.

If you work for either of those papers and you see these so-called hyperlocal sites, you may very well think that hyperlocal journalism and other Web ventures are doomed to fail. But that’s not true. Only bad sites are.

Here is exactly what is wrong with these sites:

1. Where is the journalism?
Journalism is the key to hyperlocal journalism. What Gannett has created are two sites consisting of hyperlocal junk. There is very little real news, the multimedia content is sparse and the databases are lacking at best.

There really isn’t much to do at either of these sites or a good reason to go to either one. The concept of local journalism isn’t new, and for generations people ate it up. It was the backbone of news.

But as newspapers started to decline, so did local coverage. Now papers are filled with highly commoditized wire stories. The kind of content that will never make you money or give you a loyal following.

Compare the stories at LoudounExtra.com to either of Gannett’s sites. The Post put real journalism on LoudounExtra, while both of the Gannett sites are filled with fluff.

2. Technology is important
Both Gannett sites seem to have taken to trying to do as much as possible with as little as possible. Technologically they are inferior to their newspapers’ own Web sites. If you want to check out the events guide on morristownthisweek.com you are taken off site back to the Daily Record’s page. The same concept happens at jerseyshorenow.com. Several other features really on the parent site.

That’s just about as inelegant as you can get. Users wants — no demand — a smooth experience. They want to get information as quickly and easily as possible.

The photo galleries on morristownthisweek.com are made from technology that is years old. You have to reload your Web browser each time you click on a new photo in the gallery. Using Flash or Ajax would allow for a much smoother and faster user experience.

It’s also something users expect in the year 2007.

3. Content is king
One of the things that is striking about LoudounExtra.com is how much content there is to consume. And I know they are adding a lot more in the coming months, but they already are one of the best hyperlocal sites out there.

Deep database content is an area that takes hard work and dedication to produce. The Post has a robust team of talented people that fills their databases with relevant information. The kind of information that is going to get you to use their databases a lot, and thus generate a lot of ad revenue.

Jerseyshorenow.com has a restaurant guide, but when you search for food you often don’t get any more information than the restaurant’s name, address and number. The “details” link to get more information doesn’t work on any of the listings either (it produces an error).

In stark contract is LoudounExtra.com’s restaurant guide. You get all of that information plus hours of operation; price range; driving directions and a Google Map of the location; whether or not they accept credit cards, have a kids menu or wifi, to name some of the information. Plus, users can rate each restaurant on a myriad of factors and post comments.

In short, it’s a real restaurant guide and one worth using. Why is one so much better than the other? Simple.

The Post has a team that called every single restaurant in Loudoun County and asked a series of questions of each place. Gannett’s publications rely on people e-mailing information in or signing up for an account to post a listing. Gannett wants you to do the work for them, while the Post understand that the only way to get good and accurate information is to do it yourself.

Obviously, the majority of the restaurants in the jerseyshorenow.com area are not on the site, because people are not going to do your job for you, while every single restaurant in Loudoun is on LoudounExtra.com.

4. Spend money to make money
Gannett and most large newspapers companies are not fans of spending money. They like to do things on the cheap, which is clearly obvious with most of their “hyperlocal” sites. The thing is, they are wasting a lot of money by not investing more money into their operations.

They would be better off never creating a site like morriscountynow.com than doing it the way they are right now. They simply have refused to dedicate enough staff resources or technology to the site.

In Short
Do you want to know how the Post created a successful site like LoudounExtra.com? They used a world-class CMS like Ellington, had a talented project manger like Rob Curley, staffed the site with real journalists to produce daily content, had talented programmers and designers to create a good looking and easy to use site and harnessed the power of internology to fill up several amazing databases.

Yeah, it cost them a bit of money, but I guarantee you that LoudounExtra.com will make more money than morristownthisweek.com. And the scary part is that LoudounExtra.com is just in the beginning stages with a lot more coming later this year, especially once the school year starts back up.

It’s not like Gannett can’t compete with The Washington Post company, because they can. They just don’t have the will or the forward thinking nature to do so.

Don’t waste your time creating bad sites that no one will want to use.