Can You Make Money With Local News?

MediaShift Idea Lab posted a great article by David Sasaki last week titled: Can the Knight Legacy Lead to Sustainability? David’s final thought/question in the piece was this:

But is it Sustainable?

The Knight Foundation is single-handedly making citizen media both more serious and more respected by giving financial support to some of the field’s most innovative thinkers.

But is this a sustainable model for the transformation of media? What happens when the News Challenge’s five-year funding period concludes?

All of the News Challenge grantee projects are impressive, innovative, and important, but not a single one is turning a profit, nor do they seem poised to any time soon.

There is a fundamental truth that we are fast approaching — all media should be free. This includes, news, entertainment, public records, etc. Just look at what’s happening in the music industry. The signs are all over the wall…

Subsequently, this belief in freeing the information is driving the traditional news industry into the ground. Controlling the information has always been the key (I think of the classic Redford movie, Sneakers). But the old ways of controlling and distributing the news are falling apart.

The info on the web is so disseminated, that I can get news from pretty much anywhere… so what drives me to get it from any place in particular? At risk of sounding like the corporate-driven, cube-infested, dilbertesque workplace that spawned me — it’s the value-adds.

If I can get news any time, any way, and from any location I want AND (and, folks, that’s a big “and”) also access services (from local businesses) that make my day-to-day life easier, why would I go anywhere else?

The key here is relevance and location. News that matters to me, services that help me around the house, and an online network that makes my life easier right where I live in the real world — these are the exact things that just recently were so explicitly illustrated by Newspaper Next’s news report from the American Press Institute. It was best stated as such:

“The place I go to be part of the fabric of life here [where I live].”

eNeighbors wants to help us get there. The icing on the cake is, yes, we are profitable, and our plan is to continue to be so in greater proportions. That is exactly why we have applied to the Knight News Challenge. We believe our goals and community-oriented nature are in perfect alignment with the Knight Foundation’s vision.

So, to answer David’s question, eNeighbors hopes to break that non-profitablility mold and help lead the way for the next level of online journalism and real-world community.

To Sale Or Not To Sale

A recent Facebook application launched from called Garage Sale. I think it’s self-explanatory — sell your stuff to your friends on Facebook. Theory is that they know and trust you, so it’s like a “garage sale” at your house.

TechCrunch thinks this type of closed system of selling won’t work because in this scenario, sellers don’t have access to a large customer base (like on eBay), or for that matter like on (the TechCrunch-backed classifieds site).

I thought about this for a while especially considering our success with classifieds in the eNeighbors neighborhood sites. For instance, if eNeighbors grew to the point of millions of users, how effective would our inter-community classifieds be? Would we be able to truly replace the newspaper classifieds? Or would someone like eBay ultimately win out?

The offline print classifieds are still successful to this day due to their ability to give you the “local” view of what people are selling. All you have to do is drive over and get it. Additionally, I know that some people (like my mother) love to go hunt for hidden treasures at garage/estate sales. Putting this experience online just wouldn’t translate.

In the end, I think the answer will be whatever website your average “non-techie” internet user knows about will be the one he/she uses. Additionally, that website needs to be easy to use and not intimidating to newbies. We are doing everything we can to make be exactly that.

Will Newspapers Survive?

There’s an excellent article in this month’s Wired by Jeff Howe about the impact the internet is having on the newspaper industry. The story centers around Gannett and their efforts to thwart the decline that the entire news world is experiencing.

Having worked for the Kansas City Star at one point in my career, I can personally vouch for the ingrained behavior of the news publication process. The internet is definitely a disruptive technology, and this article paints a very insightful picture on what the news companies must face to continue to operate in the overly saturated information age.

Towards the middle of the article, some of the details of Gannet’s new approach are presented:

At the heart of the plan lie two Big Ideas that are sweeping through journalism circles nationwide: Involve the reader in every aspect of the process, and take a so-called hyperlocal approach to news coverage. In recent years, Gannett’s Cincinnati arm has gone from producing one metropolitan newspaper to producing 270 niche publications, including suburban papers, neighborhood Web sites, and regional magazines. The readers — their thoughts, their half-baked opinions, their kids’ Little League scores — are at the center of them all.

This is the exact same result we have seen with the eNeighbors service. People really do want to know about the stuff that’s just down the street. Yes, it doesn’t matter to anyone else (so there’s no profit in it for the newspapers), but the internet now allows us to focus on a much smaller demographic and still remain cost-effective.

The voice of the masses is definitely getting heard these days. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues or if we will eventually tire of the barrage of average talent and ultimately rely on the professionals for the information that matters most.

The Future of Online Classifieds

Kevin Kelleher wrote an interesting piece last week about eBay’s new Kijiji classifieds service in the U.S. and how it stacks up against Craigslist.

Kevin links to Internet Outsider which has this great comment:

Despite significant online classified efforts, moreover, the classified opportunity remains massive: The dying newspaper industry still rakes in tens of billions of dollars a year for printed classifieds — a less efficient, less informative, less convenient, more wasteful, and more expensive way to buy or sell products. In another few decades, when the current (and last) generation of hard-copy newspaper readers dies out, printed classifieds will seem as archaic as whale oil. The newspaper companies may be able to retain some classifieds business as it moves online, but given the success of Craigslist, Monster, et al (and the seriously weak newspaper efforts thus far), this percentage will likely be small.

So, there’s a $10 billion plus market for classifieds, and the majority of it is not online.

Here’s where I get excited. Of all the news and community content features that eNeighbors offers to the neighborhood residents, classifieds have been the most popular by far. To date (we launched in April), we have had over 300 classifieds posted from only 2000 users in 18 neighborhoods. Keep in mind that most of the neighborhoods have only been using our service for a few weeks.

Additionally, we have already received numerous comments from users that they would like to be able to publish their classifieds to other neighborhoods in their area. This is a site enhancement that we are currently working.

The great thing is that we built the classifieds engine as a “nice to have” feature for residents to use when garage sales were not appropriate never expecting it to be so popular, but our users have begun to see a huge potential for a truly hyper-local type of market square.

I’d like to see eNeighbors follow in Craig Newmark’s footsteps and provide valuable relevant classifieds in an even more hyper-local context.

Never underestimate the power of free.

Goodbye Backfence

So, you might have heard — is shutting its doors. As expected, the industry insiders (Greg Sterling, Peter Krasilovsky, etc.) have commented most eloquently. However, Perry Evans has posted my favorite analysis of the dilemma that was the ultimate demise of Backfence. He gives the best “when the rubber meets the road” commentary on why hyper-local may or may not work.

In reference to whether or not hyper-local destination sites can be created and survive, Evans states the following:

“I am constantly pleased by the insight I read from newspaper new media executives. Nothing I am saying hasn’t been said, debated and documented in the newspaper industry. Having said that, the gap between understanding and execution is one perplexing motherload of a gap.”

Additionally, American Journalism Review (AJR) takes quite a long look at the Backfence situation. Here’s my favorite part:

“What we’re struggling with, and every major paper is struggling with, is how to reach our audience on a granular level, in a way we’ve never reached them before.” — Jonathan Krim, WPNI.

So, nobody has figured out hyper-local yet. Everybody says it’s doomed and can’t be done. yet more and more companies keep trying. I love that the AJR article recognizes the Lawrence Journal-World as one of the few innovators that have been successful. The LJW was my news source for many a year when I was in school at Kansas University. The town of Lawrence is truly a remarkable anomaly in the middle of nowhere midwestern U.S.A.

Well folks, those of us here in Kansas must be on to something, because eNeighbors will do exactly what all the experts say can’t be done, and we aren’t doing it in San Fran or Philly or DC or Chicago.

First, we’ll build the online network that residents in the community will actually visit and populate with relevant “backyard” content. Next, we’ll build the ad network that will allow those residents to access local business and service provider information. Finally, the entire platform will give way to highly targeted, community-driven citizen journalism, political activism and the ultimate “grail” of all — offline human interaction.

Join us in our vision, and get your neighborhood online today.

Newspapers need to take a distributed approach

It seems that everyone agrees – newspapers must innovate to salvage their business in the age of the Internet.

But what exactly should they do? Jeff Jarvis suggests on “CalacanisCast 23” that newspapers must adopt a distributed approach and accept the fact that they are no longer the single conduit of news that they once were.

But what does that mean – distributed approach?

In my mind a distributed approach means that newspapers would distribute their content across the Internet to whoever wanted to publish it, so long as it came attached with advertisements controlled by the newspaper so they could get paid.

You wouldn’t necessarily go to the or, but instead, you would visit sites centered around vertical interests like the war in Iraq, or more likely, the latest celebrity gossip.

The content of these sites could be supplemented or entirely supplied by professional journalists. But the sites themselves would be run by individual publishers who could pick and choose what stories to run.

eNeighbors is one publisher that would be interested in taking advantage of professional journalism.

The content on our neighborhood websites is entirely supplied by residents, which would be greatly enhanced by professional journalists in local communities. And what do newspapers do best? Yep, local coverage.

For eNeighbors this would be a perfect marriage to bolster traffic to our site and provide more value to our users.

For newspapers, eNeighbors’ network of online neighborhoods creates a hyper-local platform from which they can distribute and monetize their content without the overhead that they have today. In addition, they could charge more for the advertising since the audience is much more focused.

I’m sure other website publishers would find professional journalism a valuable addition to their site too. Citysearch is another example of a website that could benefit from professional journalism.

As Jeff Jarvis said, you’ve got to ask yourself, “WWGD?” (What would Google do?)