The Hyperlocal Revolution: Gannett Director Ted Mann gives WPMU.org the Full Scoop on the Future of Journalism

The Hyperlocal Revolution: Gannett Director Ted Mann gives WPMU.org the Full Scoop on the Future of Journalism

Local communities are reclaiming news media through
Hyperlocal online collaboration

Ted Mann is the Digital Development Director for Gannett NJ, (Gannett puts out a little publication called USA Today; you may have heard of it.) Mann’s work on inJersey.com is receiving a lot of attention and even sparking controversy. Some see this new medium as a threat to major media that could effectively cannibalize the industry. Others see it as the inevitable democratization of the dissemination of information in the 21st century. Yesterday, Ted agreed to sit down for a one on one interview with WPMU.org about his innovative uses of WPMU and BuddyPress and their potential for revolutionizing community journalism.

Q: What first gave you the idea for hyperlocal journalism and inJersey?
A:   I first heard about the term “hyperlocal” from Jeff Jarvis, I think. Many credit him with coining the term. I’ve been following Jarvis for a few years, and every time he trumpeted the success of Baristanet and other hyperlocal entrepreneurs, I paid attention. What got me to thinking about hyperlocal as a potential game-changer for the newspaper industry, though, was when I saw the New York Times launch “The Local” in North Jersey and Brooklyn. Up until that point, the only newspaper sites I’d seen attempting hyperlocal were things like Loudon Extra or simply section-fronts on core newspaper sites claiming to be “hyperlocal,” but really just ingesting content from the newspaper CMS and filtering it by geography. What set the Times apart was that they were enlisting community contributors, and putting them on an equal footing with the site editor. As a longtime blog and WordPress enthusiast, I found this greatly appealing, and the presentation on the Times site – the work of one of the best blog experts I know, Jeremy Zilar – was truly inspiring.

For InJersey, my main improvement was to layer on a social-networking component onto the hyperlocal blogs. We also make the key decision to open up the site to public registration (which few, if any other hyperlocal sites have attempted). While building it out, Patch.com came onto my radar, and I saw how aggressively they were looking to expand in New Jersey. I’ve borrowed a few things I like from the Patch sites – mapping content, tip forms, etc – but “The Local,” with it’s community collaboration, is really more of an inspiration for InJersey.

Q: The last time I checked, the membership was up to 354 members. How does that match up against current hit and readership numbers?
A:   Only a very small percentage of those 354 contribute regularly. On average, we have about 5 regular contributors per town. We need to get that number up. The Times gets about 50% of its content on “The Local” from its citizen journalists. I think the problem with our site – and most others – is that we still have too many barriers to posting. Right now in order to post to InJersey you need to register, then log in, then find the “write post” screen. It’s certainly do-able, and our contributors do do it, but I’d like to ultimately make it as easy to post to as Facebook or Twitter. If we can achieve that, I think we’ll see the volume of posts and the community engagement skyrocket.

Q: What are some of the strategies you’ve employed to get the word out about inJersey?
A:   It’s all grassroots marketing. Flyers at Starbucks, business cards to local officials, info booklets to local businesses. Our editors try to attend tons of local events, where they talk up the site and seek out contributors. When we first started, I remember thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to put up a billboard in town or something like that?’ The reality is that a) newspaper companies don’t have the money to do much of that these days and b) it’s not even necessary. Networking, emailing, posting to message boards, and pounding the pavement is the best way to get the word out.

Q: The site shows members from 5 months. How long has the site been active and how long was it in development?
A:   Yes, we soft-launched at the end of June. We first began discussing InJersey in March, right after the launch of “The Local.” I’m still frustrated that it took us that long to go live. The main issue for us was staffing. Finding reporters who can take on the duties of being a hyperlocal site editor – in addition to their regular beats – is a tall order.

Q: What were some of the challenges that you have faced in developing hyperlocal journalism communities?
A:   Locating the right people is the biggest challenge. Hyperlocal requires a unique brand of blogger, networker, and evangelist. If I could clone Debbie Gallant of Baristanet, I would.

To continue what I started in the last answer, in the end, we managed to find people around the newsroom that were able to more easily transition into doing hyperlocal full time or most of the time. One of our site editors, Colleen Curry, even managed to get her full-time gig (running http://freehold.injersey.com)via Twitter! The amount of time our staffers are able to spend (writing, doing outreach, currating) makes all the difference between the town sites that succeed and those that putter along. If anyone out there is interested, we’re currently looking for a new person in North Jersey to help us on http://madison.injersey.com. Info on how to apply is on that site.

Q: With steady declines in newspaper readership and cable news attendance, do you believe hyperlocal journalism could be poised to take over where traditional news sources seem to be trailing off?
A:   In a word, yes.

Q: What is your approach to user-generated content management? Are user entries often edited for grammar?
A:   We’ve made the very intentional move to completely open up the site to public registration and publishing. That is, anyone can join the site and contribute. However, when people do start posting, we immediately reach out to them and ask them what they’re interested in, whether they’d be willing to cover a certain topic, and discuss the sort of stuff they’re putting up. In other words, we’re hoping to build a kind of virtual citizen journalism newsroom on InJersey. Ultimately, we’ll use the site’s groups to do more organization and assigning in this arena.

No, we don’t edit any content. We often provide constructive feedback to our contributors – especially so when we get PR-ish posts that are shamelessly self-promotional in nature. Very soon we’ll have a good tool for local businesses to upload flyers that accomplish this, but we don’t want the editorial nature of the site at all muddied with promotional material.

Q: Are user entries ever edited for content, style or tone?
A:   Again, we don’t edit for content. We sometime make suggestions re: style or tone, but we don’t make any direct edits to the posts.

Q: What kinds of restrictions do you have in place for your team of local amateur journalists?
A:   As I mentioned, we discourage anything that reads like a press release. We also require that contributors follow our terms of service, which prohibits the “use the site to post or transmit any unlawful, threatening, abusive, libelous, defamatory, obscene, vulgar, pornographic, profane or indecent information of any kind” and so on.

Q: I noticed your Citizens’ Campaign Conferences promoted on inJersey. Can you please describe the structure and goals of a typical conference?
A:   We’re working with the Citizens Campaign (http://jointhecampaign.com) to help foster citizen journalism throughout the state. The non-profit is putting together a series of workshops and a whole educational series about how people can become CitJ’s – e.g. How to file FOI requests, how to conduct interviews, databases to use to search for info, etc. We’ve been trying to lead some education sessions on our own at local libraries, but we’re hoping that having a large operation like this as a partner, we can enlist a lot more people from the community.

Q: The Twitter for InJersey asks a lot of good probing questions to create more buzz and hopefully give more local contributors inspiration for posting. How would you rate the level of contribution you have achieved through Twitter?
A:   Twitter is a fantastic tools on a number of levels:

* We get leads for stories via Twitter streams from our towns (which are configured to come straight into the sidebars)
* Occasionally we get tips and ideas sent to us via Twitter (either PM’ing or by people publicly messaging us – e.g. @infreehold)

The only thing that’s a little disappointing about Twitter is that we still get a very small percentage of our traffic via our tweets. Google is the top referrer, and our newspaper sites are the next biggest block after that. Twitter, however, ranks as the #17 top referrer, which strikes me as being sub-par.

In other words, Twitter is a great idea and lead generator; not a great way to boost traffic. At least, not yet.

Q: What are you short term goals for hyperlocal journalism initiatives?
A:   I have two main goals at the moment:

1. Coming up with a solid and scalable way to monetize these sites. A few of our towns have started to get more traffic lately, and we have reached the point where advertisers are inquiring. We need to convert that interest into dollars. Also, we’re considering some non-advertising-based methods of generating revenue, which I’m very excited about.

2. Harnessing the power of the social-networking aspects of the site. It’s not enough, in my opinion, to launch a hyperlocal blog. You need to create a hyperlocal news community, and I think we’ve taken the first big steps in that direction. Think of this almost like the equivalent of the friend and family social network that Facebook has built; we want InJersey to be a local news community. Now that we’re off the ground, we just need to nurture and grow those communities we’ve started building online, by offering new and better tools for collaboration. And we have some extremely exciting ones in store!

Q: What do you believe is the potential of hyperlocal journalism? Where do you see it going?
A:   I believe hyperlocal journalism has the ability to completely reverse the direction that local news has been headed in lately. While many regional papers have been pulling back from small town news, I think these sites – and the network of community contributors they help foster – give us a platform for covering these neighborhood like they haven’t been in years.

Whether or not we end up with a thousand Baristanets or Patches or InJerseys, there’s no doubt in my mind that a network of hyperlocal sites, along with a distributed network of citizen journalists, are the future of local news.