January 27, 2006

Hyperlocal Isn’t a Business

It’s been said before, “Local Ain’t Easy”. Whether you call them “hyperlocal”, or “citizen’s journalism”, or “grassroots media” sites, websites that are built around a community and depend on contributions from readers just have a hard time getting launched and building up a critical mass of visitors. In the last year or two, there have been a number of high-profile site launches, like Backfence and Bayosphere, that got a lot of press when they first came out, but failed to build on that initial buzz and kind of petered out over time. There’s a review of Backfence from about two months ago that compares it to a ghost town, or a frontier land with infrastructure and zoning but no residents. Even after all of the money and all of the excitement, few people showed up to actually contribute to the thing.

Dan Gillmor’s Bayosphere is having the same problem. A year ago, in a highly-publicized move, Dan left his cushy job as a Silicon Valley reporter to launch a citizen journalism site for the Bay Area. It arrived with much fanfare, and at first it consisted only of…Dan’s blog. At a new address. And after a year, a year that has seen them add tools to allow anymore to sign up for an account and post their own entries, Bayosphere is still primarily made up of…Dan’s blog.

Not that this is a bad thing. Some of the best-written sites out there are personal blogs. But all along Dan was talking about how this new venture was his full time job. He and his partners were throwing money at it, some of it theirs, some of it from investors, and they expected to make back a profit. Enough to pay Dan’s salary and a few others, and to keep the site growing. In short, they looked at it from the beginning as a business. And that, Dan admits this week, was the biggest mistake they made. There never was a viable business model to the site, and by September they stopped spending investors money because it seemed pretty clear that they were never going to make it back.

Just like Backfence, they defined success as “making money”. And they failed, just like others will if they’re only chasing the bottom line.

So all of this has me thinking about my little hyperlocal site, Around Carson, and what kinds of lessons I can learn. And it seems that the number one lesson is not to think of a site like this as a business. Don’t define success by how much money you make, because it’s always going to fall short. Personally, I pay the site’s exorbitant costs ($9 per month for hosting) out of my own pocket, and I don’t expect to make it back anytime soon. Luckily the Google AdSense ads on this blog pull in $30-$40 a month, so I balance it out by saying that I’m subsidizing that site with this one.

But it’s not about the money. It can’t be. Building a site like this is something that’s going to consume you for months and months, and whatever rewards you get sure aren’t going to come with pictures of presidents on them. At least not at first. First comes the hard task of building the site (even harder for me because I’m doing it from scratch instead of using some pre-built CMS) and attracting readers, and then convincing those readers to become writers. And only then, when you’ve got things like traffic and contributors, can you start to think about business models. Maybe down the road I can put together some kind of advertising deals with local businesses and start bringing money in from the site. But even then, how would I justify lining my own pockets if other people are doing most of the work? I don’t know, and in a way, I’m glad I’m not in that situation yet.

So, for now, I think the biggest advice for hyperlocal sites is to think nonprofit. That’s the route Dan Gillmor has taken, stepping back from Bayosphere (trying to unload it on someone else, in fact, if you read to the end of his article) and moving over to found the Center for Citizen Media. In doing this, he seems to be leaving the world of producing citizen’s media, and going back to writing about citizen’s media, which is what he does best. And for the rest of us, look at some of the best hyperlocal sites out there. If you study them closely you’ll see that they’re mostly independent and intensely personal, and that’s what makes them great. Baristanet. H2OTown. Philly Future. These are my role models, not the “consumer-generated content” startups and the newspaper-backed local sites. These are what I want Around Carson to turn into.

If I ever get off my butt and finish the programming.

Filed under The Computer Vet Weblog

Comments (2)

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  1. sugafree9 says:

    Nice site. I came upon it when pinging my blog on Technorati… I clicked on that “blogs that link here” thing. I think I’ll reciprocate the favor.

    I like the fact that there are a few of us Northern Nevada guys out posting from our various perspectives.

    Posted January 28, 2006 @ 5:04 pm
  2. A reader says:

    Keep it up! I think you a doing a great job and a great service to the community. Other voices and viewpoints are always refreshing.

    Posted January 29, 2006 @ 7:41 pm

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