The four C’s of building a new local market

Local newspaper web sites have made a lot of progress during the past 10-plus years since they were first launched. Video, blogs, comments, constant updates – the list is long.

But one area that hasn’t evolved much at all on local news web sites is … strangely … the local news section.

If you click on the “Local News” tab on most local news sites, you see the same thing you probably saw in 1998: A list of headlines, in reverse chronological order, that link to stories published in the print newspaper. (I don’t pretend to have done this on every site, only a few dozen.)

At the same time, editors and publishers emphasize their “local news franchise” as the cornerstone of their operation. So why the disconnect from mission to execution?

When it comes to local coverage, readers care about their local, not someone else’s local. A newspaper defines “local” by how large an area it can deliver newspapers and sell advertising in the most cost-effective way. Then editors publish news that is as generally appealing to that audience possible. And that’s the problem: It’s too general.

Most newspapers over 20,000 circulation cover an array of communities that are geographically disparate enough that few, if any, readers actually visit or care about the communities they do not live in. That leaves them waiting for the news organization to write a story about their community while ignoring all the other “local” stories.

Is it any wonder local news sites have such lousy user loyalty metrics?

Crime and sports do well on local new sites because they are generally interesting to a local audience. But actual local news – new businesses opening, road repairs, school achievements – is only interesting to a subset of the local community that lives nearby.

And while newspaper operations have evolved during the Internet age, the fundamental structure of covering local news is still driven by filling pages for the general interest print publication. Meanwhile, the greatest tool for truly covering a series of communities sits under utilized in plain sight.

The web and mobile publishing are perfect platforms for covering local communities because they natively offer four characteristics that should be strengths instead of weaknesses:

Cut: Content can easily be cut — or segmented — to a specific hyperlocal area. Many news organizations do this to a city or town level, but it should be segmented on a neighborhood level so a visitor can quickly drill down to the area of greatest interest to them.

Capitalize: The bar needs to be lowered on what is “news” based on what is interesting to a hyperlocal audience. News organizations have successfully made this transition on topical blogs, but few have made progress on local news content which needs to be published a lot more frequently. Three stories a week from the city council meeting agenda don’t cut it.

Collaborate: Need help getting prolific? Tap the power of the crowd. But don’t ghettoize the content in some other section of the web site that no one will ever find. Fold it into the appropriate hyperlocal section.

Collect: Feeds from other sections of a local news operations like business, features and sports – plus outside blogs and “competing” web sites – should bring links to content that is specific to a hyperlocal area. This is a form of link journalism, but many of the links are already on the news site.

The ingredients are there. (Think of the success many sites are having with niche sites for moms or pets.) Apply the right recipe and a local news organization can live up to its promise of doing local news better than anyone else.

At the same time, it can create new hyperlocal markets that don’t currently exist on its site.

And isn’t creating new markets what it’s all about today?

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