Forget New York and London. Forget Toronto. Right now, Maplewood, New Jersey, is the media market to watch. "Ground zero for journalism in America today," is how Jim Schachter, digital initiatives editor at The New York Times, puts it-though, admittedly, he says this with a bit of a chuckle.
Maplewood isn't what you'd call a major market. Situated about 40 minutes west of Manhattan by train, with a population hovering around 24,000, Maplewood is the kind of place where the local prosecutor writes articles for the town newsletter about how to properly display, store and maintain an American flag. Until recently, the town was most famous as the birthplace of Ultimate Frisbee. Now, two of North America's most closely watched online news experiments are battling it out for dominance in this sleepy suburb of New York City.
In February, Patch.com, an online news start-up helmed by Jon Brod, once the head of NBA Canada, arrived in Maplewood. A month later, The New York Times announced it also was bringing its new community news site, The Local, to town. Observers are eager to see if the Maplewood initiatives will give birth to a new-and, more importantly, profitable-model for online community news and information.
The past two years have been catastrophic for the news business: double-digit circulation declines at many major American newspapers and as much as a 25% drop in advertising revenue. In 2008, 5,900 U.S. newspaper journalists lost their jobs. (The situation is arguably better in Canada, but only just.) The worst part? No one can say for sure that it will ever get any better. The nagging suspicion in the industry is that the only future for newspapers is online.
Both Patch and The Local are betting that not only will the future of news be online but a major part of that platform will centre around a strategy called "hyper-local." It works like this: Rather than provide a diverse range of local, national and international news, an online hyper-local site will focus solely on what matters to a single (often small) community. This includes information about local government, businesses and events. Suddenly, the final score of last night's high school soccer game becomes breaking news. The Times and Patch have each assigned one full-time journalist to co-ordinate Maplewood coverage, but will rely heavily on members of the community to contribute information to their sites. Both Patch and The Local acknowledge that professional reporting is what gives them credibility. At the same time, the inherent suggestion is that journalism alone isn't enough to save the news business.
As such, Patch and The Local operate in the space where newspapers and the Yellow Pages meet. Local reporting is mixed in with community and business listings, photos from users, maps and other information. The Local even highlights artwork by Maplewood students. "Google is spending time and energy digitizing books, and what we're doing is digitizing and scanning towns across the country," Brod says. "When you think about all of the information and content that is relevant to consumers in a community, it's not just news. It's schools, sports, announcements, events, volunteerism and people." Indeed, one of Patch's key investors is Tim Armstrong, the newly installed CEO of AOL and a former high-ranking Google executive.
The Times's Schachter, who is overseeing The Local, believes this is a significant departure from the way large news organizations have typically operated. "The task here is finding a way to give the people of the communities we're serving the tools and platform to report on their own community," he says. "That is pretty different from the top-down model of 'We're going to tell you what we think you need to know' that most big journalism organizations have engaged in for a long time."
Alfred Hermida, who teaches at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism and who is a former top online manager at the BBC, believes that's the right approach. "People didn't buy the newspaper just because they desperately wanted news," he says. "They bought it because it was a convenient way to find out what was happening: It had sports scores, classifieds, movie listings. It provided information that enabled you to make decisions."
The biggest question, of course, isn't whether these hyper-local initiatives will draw an audience, but whether they can generate profits for their backers. Both Patch and The Local are relying on ads to generate revenue. To address this challenge, Patch created a do-it-yourself tool that enables anyone to create and place an ad on its sites. (It also employs sales reps to sell larger placements to local businesses.) "The do-it-yourself ad solution allows anyone in the community to create an ad with just a handful of clicks and a credit card," Brod says. It's also cheaper to run. "The pure-play online model is very cost-efficient. We don't have print, ink or distribution costs, which allows us to operate at a fraction of the cost of a traditional newspaper or Yellow Pages."
Under Brod's leadership, the company has built an online platform aimed at providing local news and information to communities with populations between 20,000 and 50,000. Patch launched sites in three New Jersey communities in February, and three more in May (another three are planned for June). The Times kicked off The Local by launching blogs to cover two communities in Brooklyn and three in New Jersey. So how did they come to do battle over Maplewood? It just happened to fit both Patch's and the Times's population and demographic criteria. Additionally, the Times already had a reporter living in Maplewood.
Both Patch and the Times intend to extend their project into other communities. According to Brod, Patch is "very well-capitalized," with a war chest that will allow it to roll out new sites. The idea is to grow the network and create economies of scale. Brod says there are no plans to launch sites in Canada, but he's open to the idea. He's also heard from Canadians who want to see Patch in their area. "We received requests from people in Halifax, Western Canada, Toronto and Markham," Brod says. "We have definitely struck a chord."