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Hyperlocal news aggregators grow in sophistication

Katie Donnelly

The range of “local” broadcast news used to be determined by two things: transmitter strength and the ratio of available advertisers to eyeballs. Now, with cheap digital production and anywhere/anytime distribution, “hyperlocal” projects can target clusters of users, block-by-block. Such granularity opens many new possibilities for public media 2.0.

Two years ago, MediaShift’s Mark Glaser wrote an excellent introductory guide to hyperlocal news initiatives. As Glaser described, there are many (often overlapping) categories of hyperlocal projects, including citizen journalism, mobile journalism, aggregators, annotated maps, online forums and proprietary blogs. Since then, there have been some significant advances in the area, including changes in funding sources and improvements to mapping and aggregation tools and application programming interfaces (APIs).

Location-based initiatives are clearly in great demand right now: Twitter is hard at work developing location based-API which will allow developers to pinpoint the latitude and longitude of tweets, SeeClickFix has moved neighborhood 311 issues online, and there are countless other examples of innovative uses of geolocation technology. Maps have become ubiquitous, and many users want their news to be customized right down to street level. The iPhone has been a real driver of innovation in this sector.

In light of MSNBC’s purchase of EveryBlock last month, we thought we’d take a look at this and other hyperlocal news aggregators such as Outside.In, Topix and Fwix. As outlined in Public Media 2.0: Dynamic, Engaged Publics, the curation of information from a variety of different sources is a key component of public media 2.0.:

Users are aggregating, sharing, ranking, tagging, reposting, juxtaposing, and critiquing content on a variety of platforms—from personal blogs to open video-sharing sites to social network profile pages. Reviews and media critique are popular genres for online contributors, displacing or augmenting genres, such as consumer reports and travel writing, and feeding a widespread culture of critical assessment.

Such participatory production makes it easier for dynamic publics to form around shared issues.

EveryBlock, (whose founder prefers the term “microlocal”), began as ChicagoCrime.org, a data aggregation site that tracked crime in Chicago neighborhoods. With the help of a two-year grant from the Knight Foundation, it was able to expand its scope to include business reviews, news reports, real estate listings, and other public records for 15 U.S. cities. EveryBlock recently released an iPhone app that allows users in select cities to explore this data on their iPhones. The site is now wholly owned by MSNBC.com.

For more information, see this video interview with EveryBlock founder Adrian Holovaty:

Outside.In has a different focus. With less of an emphasis on public data, Outside.In aggregates local news from a variety of sources, including newspapers, events calendars, local blogs and Twitter. Outside.In provides a “1,000-foot view of news” around a specific location. This feature is also available on their iPhone app. The site also offers bloggers a feature called “StoryMaps” which “automatically geotags, organizes, and promotes” content. Similarly, Outside.In offers a customizable tool kit for publishers which allows publishers to aggregate and curate neighborhood news using the Outside.In platform.

A third example, Topix, takes another slightly different approach. Topix aggregates news from 50,000 sources and features 360,000 user forums. Finding that their news-collecting algorithms didn’t provide enough of a local voice, in April 2007, the site, which already included user forums, added an editing tool to allow users to share and edit articles. Topix also includes a "Top Stories" page that ranks articles and a "Most Popular" page that counts the number of unique commenters. Topix just released its first iPhone app, which automatically updates local news and information according to a user’s location. According to their website, this is currently the only local app that has complete coverage for every city in the United States.

Lastly, Fwix, founded in October 2008, is currently active in 85 U.S. cities. It aggregates and ranks a large number of traditional and user-generated news items in real time. Fwix relies heavily on social media (for example, users can sign in to the site using Twitter or Facebook accounts). Last month, Fwix released their iPhone app, which includes a host of citizen reporting tools that allow users to submit stories, pictures and videos, live on the scene.

While audiences have responded to the concept of local news aggregation, there are some consistent criticisms. The most common critique is that aggregators often lack a truly local voice (and in some cases, a human voice). For some, this concern has been intensified with the new corporate ownership of EveryBlock. Projects such as Topix have addressed this concern by providing user forums and allowing users to participate in editing news items. Similarly, Fwix balances citizen journalism with traditional reporting. All of the sites described above incorporate some sort of user-generated content, whether in the form of user comments, reviews, forums or actual user-generated news.

Another concern is that the more hyperlocal sites zoom in on particular areas, the smaller and more fragmented audiences become. This means that in order to turn a profit, aggregators must focus on many different areas, which contributes to the problem described above.

Additionally, some argue that there can be an unsettling lack of context on news aggregation sites. On EveryBlock, for example, crime data without analysis can be disconcerting. This criticism is valid, but it’s important to remember that location-based data aggregation is only one element of online news. Aggregators serve a useful purpose, but they do not replace all other news sources. As EveryBlock notes on its website: “It would be a pity if people used us as their only news source.”

And there are plenty of other places users can turn to for neighborhood news. In addition to community forums, blogs, and citizen journalism sites, there are many examples of both local and corporate-owned community news sites, some of which include aggregation features as well as original editorial content. (See, for example frameworks like Hometown Times, Pegasus News, or the AOL-owned Patch, and hyperlocal sites run by news organizations like the Boston Globe and the New York Times). Most of these sites are currently experimenting with new tools and techniques, responding to users’ needs and growing and changing accordingly.

What will make some hyperlocal sites succeed while others fail? Mark Potts, one of the co-creators of the ultimately unsuccessful hyperlocal project Backfence, argues that the “single most critical element” of any hyperlocal project is to engage its public: “It's not about technology, it's not about journalism, it's not about whizbang Web 2.0 features,” writes Potts. “It's about bringing community members together to share what they know about what's going on around town.”

Want to learn more about Public Media 2.0? Read our white paper: Public Media 2.0: Dynamic, Engaged Publics.