City Lights points to this interesting piece by Johnathan Weber on the demise of Backfence. I don't disagree with Weber, but I would add this observation: Even with a strong editorial proposition, hyperlocal news content has never struck me as a moneymaker on the web.
Hyperlocal content -- although it has never gone by that name -- has worked for many years at community newspapers because, in a small town, everybody is a celebrity. News about people you know is rarely boring. So if John Smith across the street gets a DWI, or buys a building permit for a backyard deck, or even just gets a new car (yes, I once worked for a paper that printed new car registrations), there's a market for that information. And since everybody reads the local paper, everybody gets a chance to be a celebrity a few times a year.
As communities get larger, this proposition becomes harder to sustain. I may care about my kid's Little League batting average, but I don't care about the averages of 10,000 other kids. That hyperlocal content has to compete with everything else in the world for a tiny piece of newspaper real estate. The bigger they get, the pickier newspapers have to be about what they print.
On the surface, the internet appears to offer the perfect solution to this longstanding dilemma. With news hole unlimited and virtually free, newspapers would appear to have the best of both worlds. They can print all of the hyperlocal stuff anybody asks for and still print the big stories without hurting anybody.
But there are a couple of problems with that. For one, entering all of that hyperlocal information on the web is time consuming and boring, so you have to either pay people to do it or rely on people to submit their own stuff - which means they may be happy to send you the Little League score when their team wins but a no-show when the team loses. So you get spotty or inaccurate information.
For another, getting your name in the newspaper always has had a certain cachet for most people. If a photo of your kid hitting a home run makes the local paper, the page is likely to hang on the refrigerator door for months. So readers are willing to endure a fairly large chunk of boring content in the paper to get to their own name or the name of someone they know.
It isn't clear that this will ever translate to the web. After all, for no cost at all, I can announce to the whole world in large print every day on this blog that David Crisp deserves the Nobel Prize. But that doesn't mean anyone will read it, or that I will get the prize. It's just not the same as if the Gazette were to run a full page ad saying I should get the Nobel Prize -- something I expect to see any day now.
So if people aren't willing to donate the content, and if they aren't willing to read it, and if they derive no particular benefit from having it appear on the web, where's the business model? It makes more sense to give away newspapers for a living.