Sometimes the best way to learn about a subject is just to go out and experiment.
With that thought in mind, I’ve launched a hyperlocal/beat blogging experiment, Chagrin Valley Sports. My goal is simple: provide better and more in-depth coverage of local sports in the Chagrin Valley area utilizing a beat blog. I’m starting out with high school football because it is just me right now, and BeatBlogging.Org is my full-time job.
If the site starts making money, perhaps I can hire people to cover other sports. And, yes, I can already cover football much better than any of the local papers can. Local papers tend to write a sports story about an individual school every few weeks.
These are pretty much just token stories to get schools and names in the paper, but there really is no excuse not to have at least one piece of content each week about each football team. If the site takes off, I’d like to have content about multiple sports teams from schools each week.
I’m not looking to build the coolest features or the flashiest site. I’m looking to build the most useful content. Some hyperlocal projects have been high on the cool factor but lower on the useful factor. But by concentrating on creating useful content, I can produce a lot of it, because useful content often takes less time to produce than cool content.
No, you won’t find fancy Flash graphics on my site. Nor will you find us covering high school football games with multiple video cameras.
But you will find which area players are getting looked at by scouts and which have verbally committed to play college football. If a team changes its defensive scheme, you’ll find out about that too.
My goal is to cover high school sports like professional sports are covered. And that means reporting about scheme changes. That means talking about scouting reports and game previews. It means posting playoff rankings every week.
None of that content takes much time to produce. If you have good relationships with area coaches, they’ll tell you when their players are being offered college scholarships. Playoff rankings are posted each week by OSHAA.Org. All I have to do is find the schools in my coverage area and post how they are doing, and that takes very little time.
Maybe you don’t win awards for this kind of coverage, but I think you can win users with this kind of coverage. This experiment is primarily about driving traffic, and the only way for me to drive serious amounts of traffic is to make my site into THE destination for local sports coverage.
Part of being a destination is about producing more than journalism. This means schedules. This means stats. It means linking to other people’s content. It means owning the conversation. It might even mean maps to area schools.
Ultimately, my goal has to be to make my site into the first place people think of when they think of sports in the Chagrin Valley area. If I can do that, I’ll also become the No. 1 place for local advertisers.
The Chagrin Valley area is a geographic fault line. It’s not in one county, but rather my coverage touches three different counties. I’m not going to cover an arbitrary geographic area, and I think that’s a mistake past hyperlocal projects have made.
I hope to eventually cover news too, but I started with sports because it is easier and less time consuming. It’s also a lot easier to build good will with solid sports coverage. Good will is very important for forging the kind of relationships necessary to have community-driven content succeed.
For instance, I am not taking photos, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want photos for my site. That means I have to forge relationships with people to provide me with what I don’t have. Almost every high school sporting event has at least one dedicated parent or school member who is taking photos.
I need to forge relationships with those people, because I don’t want to duplicate content. In fact, I can’t afford to. I have already forged a relationship with one high school in the area. I’m allowed to use whatever photos they have on their Web site for free, and they take hundreds, if not thousands, a week.
Now, how much has this experiment cost me? Nothing so far. It’s hosted on the same server as the JI, and it is running off a WordPress install with a theme I found.
I customized the theme to make it feel more local for users by randomly generating photos at the top of the page of each school. What says Chagrin Valley sports better than photos of Chagrin Valley teams playing sports?
I also focused on SEO from day one. The No. 1 search result for “Chagrin Valley sports” is my Web site. It turns out the query “Chagrin Valley sports” is a popular one, and it has proven fortuitous already that I named my site after a popular search query.
Maybe I could have thought of a sexier name or a more traditional name like The Chagrin Valley Advocate. But my name, as obvious and blunt as it may be, is an SEO gold mine. I’m already the No. 2 search result for the query “Chagrin Falls football,” behind only Wikipedia. My entrenched local competitors have ignored SEO to their own peril.
And how I am driving traffic to my site? I’m finding the online communities where people talk about local sports and becoming active in those communities. These people are interested in good content, and I need to forge relationships with them.
This site may fail miserably, but it has already been a great learning experience. Making money on the Web is ridiculously hard, and that’s why I have to find a new business model for local journalism.
This is ultimately a proof of concept for a Knight News Challenge Grant I am applying for later this year (this is a tiny fraction of what I am proposing to Knight). Whether or not Knight likes my pragmatic approach to producing Web content remains to be seen. But I’m not going to try to out-cool and out-sexy people.
I’m just going to produce lots of useful content. And I’m going to drive a ton of traffic my way.