Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

J-Lab Report: What Works For Hyperlocal News Sites

Sept. 30, 2010, 11:15 a.m., Posted by Marika Lynch

Jan Shaffer

This entry, written by J-Lab's Jan Schaffer, was originally posted at www.j-lab.org.

J-Lab has funded community news startups since 2005, when the movement to launch independent hyperlocal news websites began in earnest. To date, we've seeded the launch of 55 'New Voices' experiments - with encouraging support from Knight Foundation.

Now, it's time to report what we have learned - and it's a lot. Check it out in our new publication, 'New Voices: What Works.'

One of our biggest learning curves is this: It doesn't pay to train whole classes of 'citizen' journalists. While you'll be doing wonders for advancing digital media skills in your community, you won't end up with a reliable corps of contributors for your news site. Ordinary citizens, armed with good intentions, are just too busy.

Citizen journalism turns out to be a high-churn, high-touch enterprise - one that requires a full-time community manager. The most successful New Voices projects, like the Twin Cities Daily Planet, 'have advanced other ways to tease out and nurture good contributors, and these are profiled in the report.

While some studies have criticized hyperlocal news startups for not replacing journalism lost because of cutbacks in traditional newsrooms, we think these sites have done something else entirely.

One of the New Voices projects' most important contributions is not that they replaced news coverage that has been constricted - rather they added coverage that did not exist before, not even in the heyday of American journalism.

They've done a bunch of other things as well: They triggered other news stories, helped solve community problems, imparted a lot of political knowledge that empowered voters, and engendered a new level of accountability for municipal leaders.

In the last couple of years, we've been blown away by how quickly a site can launch and get noticed with a determined social media strategy. The Oakland Local New Voices project is scarcely a year old, and it already has nearly 310,000 unique visitors, more than 4,000 Facebook fans and nearly 2,500 Twitter followers.

The report focuses on 10 key takeaways. They include:

  • Engagement, not just content, is key: Robust and frequent content begets more content, but it's the engagement with users that make sites successful.
  • Sweat equity counts for a lot: Projects built on the grit and passion of the founders have created the most promising models for sustainability.
  • Community news sites are not a business yet. Income from grants, ads, events and other things falls short, in most cases, of paying staff salaries and operating expenses.
  • Demand for start-up funding is high. We had 1,433 applicants for the 55 projects that were funded.

The report focuses on the 46 grantees funded between 2005 and 2009. Nine other projects funded this year will launch over the next six months.

These 46 New Voices grantees launched 48 projects; 42 are still online. Of those sites, 32 - or 76 percent - are still actively updated. In the early years, the projects received a total of $17,000 from J-Lab, but had to raise some matching support. Recently they received $25,000. Our thanks to Knight for supporting these risky pilot projects.

See an electronic version of the report here.

To order a hard copy, email news@j-lab.org with your name and mailing address.