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How hyperlocal news outlets are taking shape across the U.S.

A conventional impression of a hyperlocal news source is one person working tirelessly to solicit community involvement and fill a website.

Although there is some truth to the reputation, recent research by Arizona State University assistant professor Monica Chadha shows that hyperlocals come in many different forms, some with more than 20 employees and some with staff working in much the same way as traditional journalists.

Hyperlocals come in many different forms.

The term “hyperlocal” has been used many ways over the years, so a definition here is essential. For the purposes of her 2013 survey, Chadha examined digitally-native news sources that were started to cover a specific local geographic area in the United States. Those could be a town or neighborhood, but in far more cases the sites were designed to cover a whole city. So some may call this just “local” instead of “hyperlocal.”

By any name, the findings provide one of the most comprehensive looks to-date at what is happening in local, digital-startup, community journalism. Chadha’s research is slated to appear in the scholarly journal Digital Journalism.

Here are seven take-aways from Chadha’s research.

Banner ads are a mainstay of hyperlocal revenue, followed by grants.

When asked about sources of revenue, the 210 respondents from 144 different hyperlocal sites most often mentioned banner advertising. On average, 39% of site revenues came from this ad form. Grants from private foundations and users are the next most common source, making up an average of 16% of revenues. Other forms of earnings, like classifieds and subscriptions, contribute minimally to site income.

More than 40% of hyperlocals have 20+ staff, cover cities.

Rather than a solo employee covering a single neighborhood, many of the hyperlocals responding to Chadha’s survey are large operations — 42% had more than 20 full-time staff, such as DNAInfo or Patch. Only 14% came from hyperlocals with a single employee. And half of the organizations covered entire cities, as opposed to neighborhoods (13%) or towns (9%). Staff also tend to have a professional background; Chadha notes that most of the staff completing the survey had previous journalism experience.

Staff are educated, younger.

Demographically, hyperlocal staff are younger and more educated than the population overall. Just over half of the survey respondents were less than 40 years of age and 90% had a college degree. Racial diversity is lacking, with 82% identifying as white or Caucasian. Politically speaking, many staff have liberal leanings; just over seven in 10 identified as being on the liberal end of the political spectrum.

Nonprofit hyperlocals cover the news differently than for-profits.

The topics covered by hyperlocals vary widely and there are substantial differences in the topics covered by for-profit and nonprofit sites. “Not-for-profit sites covered conventional news topics,” writes Chadha, “while for-profit sites covered more popular topics such as pets and entertainment and music.”

Hyperlocal staff enact traditional journalistic behaviors.

When asked about their thoughts on journalistic behavior, hyperlocal staff had much in common with what we know about journalists from traditional news media. Staff saw posting content they had authored, sourcing their work, and confirming the accuracy of information as journalistic behaviors. They were less likely to see speed or inserting personal opinions as components of their work.

Rating
Post something you have written on the site 6.56
Include links to original source material you have cited or used in some way 6.55
Confirm the accuracy of all information you post online 6.50
Try to post online something you hear of immediately 4.74
Include your opinion in self-produced content 3.32

Data Source: “With reference to producing content for your hyperlocal site, which of the following behaviors are applicable to you?”

American Press Institute

User-generated content is helpful, but separate.

Hyperlocal staff recognize the value of user contributions, but also believe that user-generated content should be clearly separated from staff content on their site.

Rating
User contributions add value to the site 6.00
Content provided by users must be distinguished from content provided by staff on the site 5.81
Everyone is an expert and must be allowed to speak his or her mind freely on the site 2.00

American Press Institute

Nearly three-fourths of hyperlocals are present on social.

Interviewees most commonly said that their hyperlocals had Facebook pages (73%) and Twitter accounts (72%). Other forms of social media were less common.

To do her research, Chadha compiled a list of hyperlocals from available databases, searches, and previous research. She sent email invitations and reminders to 1,541 staff at 279 sites. As Chadha notes, results of the survey are not generalizable to the entire population of hyperlocal staff or sites. Nonetheless, her survey represents an up-to-date look at what is happening in this part of the news ecosystem.

Overall, Chadha’s research shows that hyperlocal staff have much in common with traditional journalists. The survey respondents had backgrounds, perceptions of job duties, and attitudes toward user-generated content that resembled those of traditional journalists.

The results also illustrate that hyperlocal newsrooms are dependent on online advertising as a form of revenue, just as traditional newsrooms are.

Yet the value hyperlocal staff placed on user contributions and the funding received from grant agencies represent potential differences. Only a study comparing traditional to hyperlocal staff would allow us to know for sure. Regardless, keeping tabs on this evolving form of local news can help us to understand how local communities are being served.

Next steps

Scholars and news organizations interested in continuing this line of research could collaborate to analyze:

  • How does hyperlocal content differ from other media sources in the news ecosystem and do these differences contribute to hyperlocal success? By comparing hyperlocal to other media content across a wide range of communities, we can better understand if hyperlocals are meeting distinct community needs. Tying this to the success of hyperlocals by looking at revenues and traffic may help these news sources develop business models.
  • How do audiences perceive hyperlocal news relative to other available sources? Understanding how audiences think about various sources of news could give valuable insight to hyperlocals trying to attract communities to their sites. From a scholarly perspective, it is possible that hyperlocal trust is based on more interpersonal criteria than trust in other media sources.

Citation

Monica Chadha. (2015). The Neighborhood Hyperlocal. Digital Journalism. doi: 10.1080/21670811.2015.1096747

  • Steve Doig

    My colleague Monica Chadha teaches with me at Arizona State University in Phoenix, not at the U of Arizona in Tucson. Common mistake, but there is a real difference!

    Steve Doig
    Knight Chair in Journalism

  • Great data. Thank you!

  • In the Cove

    great article I run a hyperlocal site in Australia and we just report on local community issues

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