A Brief History of Hyperlocals

Smells like town spirit
March 12, 2012

This article ran in CJR’s March/April 2012 edition as a sidebar to Sean Roach’s cover story on the Patch hyperlocal news network.

Lawrence, Kansas, led the way: The Lawrence Journal-World was one of the first US daily newspapers to go online in 1995, and that site was joined in 2002 by Lawrence.com, largely user-generated.

In the mid-90s, AOL Digital City, CitySearch, and Microsoft Sidewalk all tried to build national networks of local sites; only CitySearch is still standing. Other experiments, such as Backfence (based in northern Virginia) and The Washington Post’s LoudounExtra.com, came and went fairly quickly.

Triblocal, a spiritual descendant of what was AOL’s first Digital City, comprises 60 sites covering the Chicago suburbs; its content also appears as a weekly print supplement to the Chicago Tribune. The New York Times still hosts The Local’s blogs, serving Manhattan’s East Village and Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, although a New Jersey outpost covering Maplewood, Millburn, and South Orange was turned over to an upstart competitor, Baristanet, cofounded by a Times alumna.

Patch was hatched in 2007 by Tim Armstrong and Jon Brod, seeded by $4.5 million from Armstrong’s investment company. Not long after Armstrong joined AOL, in June 2009, AOL bought Patch for $7 million. Although he could have legally pocketed a large chunk of the proceeds, Armstrong chose to merely recoup his original investment, granted in AOL stock once the decoupling from Time Warner was complete.

The only other working, large-scale local-news project is a content farm. Examiner.com, bankrolled by business mogul Philip Anschutz, is built on the brand of the San Francisco Examiner, which he bought in 2004. The combined traffic of its 200-plus local sites exceeds that of Patch, although much of the content is execrable.

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And the most popular hyperlocal information site, by most reckonings, isn’t journalism: Yelp’s digital update of the Yellow Pages, complete with user ratings, is No. 1 overall.

Here’s a look at some of the major players in hyperlocal journalism over the past few years:

EveryBlock Founded in 2007 with funding from the Knight Foundation by Adrian Holovaty, formerly of WashingtonPost.com, this site was bought by MSNBC in August 2009—just as its Knight grant ran out—for an undisclosed sum. It now covers 16 US cities, from Atlanta to Portland.

Outside.in Founded by author and Web entrepreneur Steven Berlin Johnson (most recent book: Where Good Ideas Come From) and John Geraci (also father of DIYcity) in February 2007, this site was sold to AOL in March 2011 (terms undisclosed). Essentially, it was a talent grab: Outside.in CEO Mark Josephson took charge of revenue for AOL Local, and Outside.in CTO Rob Platzer became director of engineering for Patch.

Another large-scale aggregator, Topix, claims to scan 67,000 sources and then hosts an estimated 450,000 user-generated forums on those topics. Based in Palo Alto, CA, Topix has received $30 million in funding from the likes of Gannett, McClatchy, and the Tribune Company.

DNAinfo is the brainchild of Ameritrade entrepreneur Joe Ricketts, who also owns the Chicago Cubs. The Manhattan site went online in 2009, and late last year the company announced plans to spread to NYC’s outer boroughs as well as to Chicago (no dates given).

Main Street Connect, launched in 2010, covers towns in Fairfield County, CT; Westchester County, NY; and central Massachusetts. To date, it has raised $11 million in private-equity funding. Editorial operations are led by financial columnist Jane Bryant Quinn.

Meanwhile, small digital news operations—from The Batavian in upstate New York to California’s thriving Oakland Local and Washington’s West Seattle Blog—are sprouting, and surviving, all over the country. There is enough activity in the space that there’s a website devoted to it. Streetfightmag.com, billed as “inside the business of hyperlocal,” was founded last April by alumni of The Industry Standard and Mediabistro. And at the annual Block by Block conference in Chicago in September, 21 local sites banded together as a trade organization so they can more easily purchase health insurance for their contributors, among other things.

CJR has profiled some 250 of these sites so far, at least one in every state, in our searchable CJR Guide to Online News Startups. As luck would have it, our Patch entry—one master profile and a separate listing for each state’s sites—was completed just in time for this issue!

Cyndi Stivers is a former editor in chief of CJR