One school of thought says that news organizations are best equipped to cover small neighborhoods, so if you really want to attract readers go local. Last year, the New York Times began its own trial with so-called hyperlocal reporting, starting cautiously in just a handful of neighborhoods in the metro area. Deputy Metro editor Mary Ann Giordano talks about the experiment.
BOB GARFIELD: Paywalls, micropayments, iPad apps, there is no shortage of business models purported by at least somebody to be the savior of newspapers. And then there’s the content itself. One school of thought says that if you really want to attract readers, go local. Very local. The New York Times began its own experiment with so-called hyperlocal reporting. Mary Ann Giordano is Deputy Metro Editor at The Times and oversees the project called The Local. Mary Ann, welcome to OTM. MARY ANN GIORDANO: Thank you, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: First of all, to begin with a very simple question, how do you diagnose the problems [LAUGHING] with newspapers today? You've talked about the Gannettization of America. Explain what you mean. MARY ANN GIORDANO: Part of the reason that newspapers are in so much trouble is that they were all scooped up into these media conglomerates that then took away the local flavor, took away the local voice, brought in young reporters who stayed for, you know, a year or two and then moved on. Nobody really was vested in these communities. But a lot of small, privately-owned community newspapers stuck it out, and they're still doing okay. They may not be the greatest journalism products in the world, but they really have a focus. And I think that a lot of big newspapers are seeing this whole hyperlocal thing as a way to reclaim some of the circulation and some of the readers that they lost. Whether it can make money or not, no one knows for sure. BOB GARFIELD: You know, before we go any farther talking about the particulars of your efforts - MARY ANN GIORDANO: Mm-hmm. BOB GARFIELD: - can we just define “hyperlocal?” MARY ANN GIORDANO: We defined “hyperlocal” as 50 to 60,000 people who have common interests, things like school system, parks, tax base. They want to read basically everything you print because it affects them. And what we wanted to do was not only provide local news but provide it in a way that was a conversation with our readers. So we solicited content from the public. We worked with our readers to cover themselves. BOB GARFIELD: So you went into Fort Greene, Brooklyn, which is - MARY ANN GIORDANO: Mm-hmm. BOB GARFIELD: - a kind of demographically diverse neighborhood racially, economically and so forth - MARY ANN GIORDANO: Yes. BOB GARFIELD: - and also into Millburn, South Orange and North Jersey, a much more well-heeled suburb. Each of the blogs was a one-man band. MARY ANN GIORDANO: Mm-hmm. BOB GARFIELD: Is any of them generating enough advertising revenue to pay the salary of the one-man band member? MARY ANN GIORDANO: The New York Times decided early on that this was going to be a journalistic experiment. The advertising department stayed on the sidelines. We did not make any money, and you’re absolutely right, these are expensive. They're also really high burnout jobs. It’s a 24/7 enterprise to start a hyperlocal blog, if you want to do it in a way that, you know, covers news and does more than just mouth off on local issues. Therefore, you probably have to have one or two staff, particularly if you are selling advertising. But some entrepreneurs out there are doing it. One of them is Baristanet in Montclair, New Jersey. Two women who are journalists started this site up several years ago, and they are now expanding. In fact, they've taken over the area we were covering in New Jersey, uh-- BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's talk about that, because you’re - MARY ANN GIORDANO: Yes. BOB GARFIELD: - pulling up stakes in the Millburn, South Orange experiment, and kind of ceding the territory to Baristanet.com. Why? MARY ANN GIORDANO: Well, really our experiment there ran out, especially since we, as I said, did not pursue it as a business. We do not sell advertising. So it was really an expenditure for The New York Times. We had such good readership and loyalty and such a large group of regular contributors, we looked for every way possible to keep that site going. You know, with the Brooklyn site in New York, we have a partnership with the City University of New York, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. We're starting up a third site with NYU in the East Village later in the summer. We could not find that kind of relationship in New Jersey. And then Baristanet offered to come into this area, and we helped them get going. And I think that’s part of our experiment, too, in that we're really looking closely at creating networks of hyperlocal sites. We're not quite sure how it’s going to work, whether it’s going to feed into the newspaper or just Nytimes.com or, you know, how do we at The New York Times make sure that these sites are up to our standards and our journalistic values that we at least aspire to? The experiment will continue in that direction. Meanwhile, our associations with NYU and CUNY, they are continuing to look at business models. They are continuing to look at ways in which citizens can be trained in journalism, at least some of the basics. All of those things can be integrated into the way The New York Times covers virtually everything. BOB GARFIELD: Burnout job, very little advertising revenue, can anybody make a go at this? MARY ANN GIORDANO: Entrepreneurs are. I think a lot of newspapers are doing it. Ironically, Gannett, which bought up all these local newspapers, is now going back at hyperlocal blogging fulltime. They're hiring a bunch of people. You know, Bob, I really don't know the answer. No one knows. There are many, many wiser people than me out there who feel there’s literally billions of dollars of local advertising that’s now going to everything from the Yellow Pages to, you know, placemats in the diner that could be going to these hyperlocal sites. If The New York Times made an investment here of, you know, a year and a half so far in these sites, I would argue that we got our money’s worth in what we've learned. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Mary Ann. Thank you so much. MARY ANN GIORDANO: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Mary Ann Giordano is Deputy Metro Editor at The New York Times. She oversees The Local, the paper’s experiment with hyperlocal journalism.