26 January 2015
I publish a hyperlocal newspaper in downtown Cairo, Egypt, so I’m always interested in seeing what colleagues around the world are doing in this sphere. Especially considering that our newspaper — called Mantiqti (My Neighbourhood or My Area) — is currently print-only (with a Facebook page). And that’s on purpose. We think print still has a livelihood, especially in areas that have not yet been served properly by the media. So for me, part of visiting a lot of hyperlocal websites is also about seeing what has worked, and what hasn’t; it’s a way for our team to gather ideas that we might eventually use whenever we do our digital version of Mantiqti.
So, without further ado, here are the top five hyper-local websites I regularly visit.
Following what digital pioneer Jim Brady is doing in the local news field in a no-brainer. Brady has been doing interesting work online since his days running washingtonpost.com. What I really like about his new Philadelphia-based hyper-local site Billy Penn is the way it has changed the template for what local sites should do. Opening up the content mix to aggregation and curation of local news from a variety of sources, combined with original reporting and off-line community gatherings, is a new idea that perfectly reflects local media’s mission: to provide readers with the kind of continuing stream of essential information about their surroundings that makes going back to the site to see what’s new an addiction. There’s also a healthy combination of hard news and lifestyle info.
This fairly new entrant into the local media scene in France has rapidly expanded to include three mid-size cities: Tours, Poitiers, and Niort. I’m impressed that these guys managed to beat the big international players like Metro, which tried to take Tours by storm. It makes more sense for local news to be produced by local players, rather than huge international operations. Local news is not like fast food, and it should have a very down-to-earth local feel to it, specific to the place being covered. I like the fact that the TMV site is easy to navigate: you can easily see the top news from all three places on the front page, and you have the option of going deeper into each community. They also provide the PDF of the print edition of the paper if the digital tidbits have merely whet your appetite for more. On the PDF you also get to see the local advertisements that ran in the paper.
I like the simplicity and the easy-going tone of this new site. Like Billy Penn it is trying to attract the all-important millennials category of readers. But unlike Billy Penn it is going for a limited approach: just five stories per day. Charlotte Five is produced by the print-based Charlotte Observer, a long-running paper covering the largest city in North Carolina — but Charlotte Five is vastly slicker in design than its veteran owner’s site. Just looking at the titles of a typical day’s five stories gives you an idea of the new site’s style and focus: 'Ritz opening Punch Room on Valentine’s Day. 8 Bob facts (their mixologist)'; 'Charlotte woman will sit with Michelle during Obama’s State of Union Address'; 'Piedmont’s CEO makes $3.1 million; 16 Charlotte-area CEOs who make more'; 'Spending Friday night at a high school basketball game is retro cool (sorta)'; 'The extra I-485 lane nobody can use'. Only 5 stories, but clearly a very diverse collection and a much more chatty approach. The site is also very transparent, telling readers how many people have viewed and shared each story, even when that number is in the single digits. They also have a symbol next to each story on the front page indicating what kind of story it is (listicle, photos, etc.).
Both of these sites are over ten years old, and that’s why I like to keep going back to them every once in a while to see how they’ve managed to sustain an online hyper-local presence for so long. With Baristanet — which covers local communities in New Jersey — it’s clearly a combination of solid neighbourhood coverage (politics, crime, local heroes, etc.), but also interesting ideas that may be useful or adaptable to our work on local news here in Cairo. Baristanet’s gas prices comparison map, for instance, is a great visual tool that may work in Cairo, but for other goods like fruits and vegetables since our gas prices are controlled and do not fluctuate. I also like the creative category names. The crime section on Baristanet is called 'Sirens' [...] and there is even a section called 'Pets', which provides photos of lost and wandering cats (I see people in Cairo trying to do the same thing on social media). For me, hyperlocal is also an area where you can do specialised stuff, like a site for parents and kids in a certain geographical region. That’s what the Neighborhood Parents Network site does in Chicago.
Because I also call Washington, DC my home, I like to keep tabs on what’s going on in the old neighbourhood when I am away. Of course that means reading The Washington Post, Politico, USA Today, etc., but also the smaller hyper-local sites that help provide a different flavour, and provide news that the big guys may deem less important. Where else, for instance, would I find a small item trying to get to the bottom of why the 'next station' displays inside Metro cars are not working properly? The problem with a lot of these smaller digital startups is that they don’t last, so you have to look for a new one once you notice they have stopped updating, or disappeared altogether. Greater Greater Washington is fine for now: being from DC how couldn’t you like a site whose tag line is 'The Washington DC area is great, but it could be greater', and whose stated mission is Greater Greater Washington builds informed and civically engaged communities who believe in a growing and inclusive Washington region and speak up for livable communities and high-quality education for all'. In many ways it sounds just like what we are doing with Mantiqti here in Cairo!
Mantiqti (My Neighborhood) is the newspaper of Downtown, Cairo. It serves its local community like no other media entity in Egypt by providing in-depth coverage, useful information and entertaining content in an innovative designed, free monthly tabloid platform. It is the first of a series of local newspapers that will be rolled out by EMDP under the Mantiqti brand.
The idea of creating such a Hyper-Local Newspaper is to touch and shed the light on people whom most probably have never been covered by national newspapers. Our aim is to create a sense of familiarity and a bond between people of the area. ViaMantiqti, communities get to know each other, the business and hangouts that exist in their neighborhood, and develop awareness of things that they might pass by every day, but not even recognize.
The success of Mantiqti serves as an example of the willingness of people to participate in their own change, and what they can achieve given the proper tools and information.