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Monday, July 12, 2010

Some Questions Raised by Closing of the New Jersey Local  

The New York Times
announcement on June 30 that it was closing one of its two hyperlocal web sites, the New Jersey Local, caught my eye because for four years I published Hastings News, a hyperlocal e-newsletter that focused on reporting about Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.  
 

The announcement by The Times, which described the newspaper’s local web sites as “an experiment in hyperlocal and collaborative journalism,” seemed to me to raise a multitude of unanswered questions.   I suspect that those like me, who see hyperlocal journalism as a major direction for the future of news reporting, were also left wanting to know much more. 

On the day of its closing, the shuttered site had been running for just one day short of a year and a quarter.  It covered an area comprising three neighboring suburban Essex County communities—Millburn, Maplewood, and South Orange,  Some demographics for the three communities, with a combined population of about 60,000, suggest that the residents are youngish and lead a comfortable if not affluent existence—seemingly a promising publishing audience.  
 

Maplewood

South Orange

Millburn

Population 7/2007

23,264

16,534

19,264

Median Household Income (est. 2008)

$97,641

$102,514

$160,430

Median House/condo Value (estimated)

$490,378

$592,680

$1.2 million

Median Resident age

37.7 years

34.7

39.2 years

Source:  City-Data.com http://www.city-data.com/city/Millburn-New-Jersey.html; http://www.city-data.com/city/Maplewood-New-Jersey.html ; http://www.city-data.com/city/South-Orange-New-Jersey.html


The announcement, including some language that I have highlighted in bold ital, makes it sound as though the editorial product was a success:

Even when Tina Kelley left The Times in December, we found a way to keep the New Jersey Local going while we searched for a formula that would allow us to keep the site lively and strong without a full-time Times journalist at the helm. Lois DeSocio  - with your help, support and dedication - has done a phenomenal job providing these towns with news, information and conversation for the last several months.  . . . (links omitted)

The decision has been made to use the knowledge we have gained from the New Jersey Local and take the experiment in a new and exciting direction. And so today this part of The New York Times hyperlocal experiment has come to an end.

So here are a few of the unanswered questions: 

  • What is the "new and exciting direction" that The Times says that its "experiment" with microjournalism will take?
  • What can we learn from the New Jersey Local's failure (presumably it would not have closed if it had been successful) about publishing microjournalism? What has The Times learned?
  • Not much advertising appeared on the New Jersey Local's pages. Is this the reason for the Local's closure? What was the nature and extent of the Local's effort to obtain ads? Was there someone assigned as business manager or ad salesperson?
  • What was the viewership/readership of the New Jersey Local upon closing, what was the trend, and how was this measured? What were the reader demographics-mostly older, retired residents? Will local residents miss the Local, and how do we know?
  • What efforts did The Times make to save the New Jersey Local--from modifying the editorial approach to modifying the approach to building revenue? Did The Times consider going to a subscription model for the Local?
  • Was the New Jersey Local, which The Times in its opening and closing announcements refers to as "hyperlocal" and "community journalism" and a "community web site" (and which it elsewhere describes as a blog) a good example of hyperlocal journalism and of community journalism? What are the distinctions among these terms? Did the New Jersey Local fail as a blog, or did it fail as journalism or did it fail as a community web site, or what?
  • The second hyperlocal web site begun by The Times is the Brooklyn Local. When in March 2009 The Times announced the startup of the two web sites, it noted:

"For the Brooklyn sites, The Times is blending its community journalism initiative with one being undertaken by the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. The school will collaborate with The Local in Clinton Hill and Fort Greene to teach residents about reporting and the use of interactive media. CUNY journalism students will contribute to The Local and help area residents contribute. The students will also maintain a blog about the pilot project as a way to share their findings with educators and journalists. Some students will also have summer internships working on The Local."

Is collaboration with CUNY's journalism school on the Brooklyn version of The Local the reason that the Brooklyn version survives while the New Jersey version (which had no such collaboration) has been closed?  How does the surviving Brooklyn Local differ in editorial and business approach from the now defunct New Jersey Local?

  • The original announcement also said, “The [two] sites will feature posts by New York Times journalists and community members about everyday life in their neighborhoods, including news and information about schools, restaurants, businesses and real estate, as well as economic life, crime, government services, transportation, volunteer opportunities, outdoor activities, parenting issues and more.”  It listed nine elements (set forth here verbatim) to be incorporated into the sites:  
    • Calls for citizen engagement, such as posts that mobilize users to research or resolve a local problem.
    • Creative works by people in the communities, including short films, poetry, sermons, book chapters, short stories and multimedia artwork.
    • Community contributors posting on topics such as the challenge of running a small business during the economic downturn, keeping a green home, local fitness opportunities and the small pleasures of neighborhood life.
    • Questions and Answers with interesting and important people in the communities.
    • A virtual refrigerator of art submitted by neighborhood children.
    • A calendar of neighborhood events submitted by users.
    • Announcements of lifecycle events submitted by users, including wedding announcements, photos, news tips and death notices.
    • "SeeClickFix," an online service created by developers and entrepreneurs in New Haven, Conn., that encourages users to improve their neighborhood in three steps: See - a nonemergency issue in your neighborhood; Click - open a ticket describing the issue and what can be done to resolve it; Fix - publicly report the issue's resolution.
    • Local Real Estate - a map-based module linking to The Times's real estate site that shows properties for sale or rent in the relevant communities.

    How well were the above community journalism features received?  How willingly and how often did the community contribute?  How difficult was it for The Times and/or the New Jersey Local to manage the community aspect of the site? 

There are still more questions that the announcement raises, but that’s enough for now.   Hopefully, media reporters and The Times itself will be providing us the answers in the months ahead.

-- Jeff Bogart

6:14 pm edt          Comments


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