On Hyperlocals, Hyper-hiring, and Hype

MainStreetConnect has big plans for the future

Carll Tucker, founder of hyperlocal news organization MainStreetConnect, was profiled on Wednesday on Journalism.co.uk, and his claims about the company’s goals raised some eyebrows at CJR.

The company made news when it raised almost $4 million from independent investors a few months after its March 2010 launch. MainStreetConnect now has a network of nine sites, all in Connecticut towns, and features twenty editors, reporters, and photographers on its masthead. But that’s just the beginning:

The company currently employs 44 people full-time and with its target of 3,000 sites could eventually hire 10-15,000 journalists. “We’re helping to rebuild a profession,” says Tucker.

Fifteen thousand journalists, a vast army of young grads setting out to conquer the country? Let’s not get carried away. It’s still unclear whether Tucker’s business model is sustainable over the long term—or in communities that don’t rate as some of the wealthiest in the nation. (So far, there seem to be two sure-fire ways to make money with a hyperlocal news company: get a lot of venture capital, sell the company to a large corporation that wants to hedge its bets by experimenting with local news, or both.)

But to the latter point, if Tucker really intends to “rebuild” the profession of journalism, it’s worth examining what kind of product MainStreetConnect is actually delivering to its readers.

The nine sites in MainStreetConnect’s Connecticut network are colorful and flashy, but the content is almost all the same on each of the sites (each one just has a different lead story at the top). Most of the stories are very short, superficial pieces that give the sites a Pennysaver feel (“School Year Finally Ends,” “How to Beat the Heat,” etc.). Having so many different URLs might impress investors, but there doesn’t seem to be enough content to sustain them. Tucker told journalism.co.uk that MainStreetConnect’s model differs from sites like Patch.com and the Times’s experiment The Local in that editors work in teams on several sites at once, rather than having one paid editor at each. This arrangement might be an efficient one—but, so far, it doesn’t produce content that’s editorially compelling.

Tucker describes how incredibly hungry the public is for hyperlocal coverage, and I’m not inclined to disagree. He says:

‘There’s a very intense appetite for high quality community news that the “Main Street mom” who is the core reader, who I have served all my life, will come for as a regular reader…. [F]or time immemorial people have craved their community news.’

On the other hand, just because the audience is ravenous doesn’t mean that they will be easily satisfied. The fact that editors work on several sites at once results in less original content on each site, and the company’s “franchise” model—in which MainStreetConnect farms out the basic site infrastructure for a cut of the revenue and then steps back from editorial oversight—could also signal a lack of centralized quality control.

When we talk about a journalistic experiment succeeding, there are two types of success to consider. First: is it financially sustainable, or potentially profitable? (Maybe.) And second: does it succeed editorially? (Not yet, not at all.) A news startup has to succeed in both areas for its success to matter. If it doesn’t succeed in the second one, then it doesn’t matter whether the company plans to employ a baseball stadium’s worth of journalists.

MainStreetConnect is still very young, so it remains to be seen what they will do with their new hires and quickly multiplying URLs. It would just be nice for press coverage of start-ups like these to remember that community readers deserve quality reporting. Just because a story is about your neighborhood doesn’t mean you will necessarily want to read it. The content has to be interesting or useful enough to keep readers coming back.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner