Hyperlocal Expert Ted Mann inJersey
Gannett currently owns more than 83 daily papers across the country with another 850 Non dailys. Ted has been working with a team within Gannett New Jersey to innovate and develop what he hopes could become part of Gannett’s greater hyperlocal strategy.
I decided to speak with Ted and learn more about the projects he’s working on.
Ted, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. Let’s start by talking a little bit about WordPress. You really like this platform and in fact InJersey is built using the buddypress plugin for wordpress. Tell us a little bit about why wordpress rocks as a hyperlocal platform and why you choose it?
WordPress rocks on so many levels that I hardly know where to begin. As you probably already know, many (if not most) hyperlocal blogs are built on WordPress — be they independent start-ups or the New York Times’s “The Local.” Aside from being one of the most popular platforms for bloggers, WordPress is also easily one of the most favorite CMS options for developers (owing largely to founder Matt Mullenweig’s decision to make the entire effort open-source). As a result, there are countless free plugins and themes (in addition to a few pay ones, which are pretty nifty, too). One of these is, of course, BuddyPress, which is what we used for InJersey.
BuddyPress is basically like an entire social layer you can add on top of your blog. The first thing most people think when they here that is, ugh, what do I need with another social network. Between Facebook and Twitter, I’ve got my hands full. But I think what’s happening on the web lately is that those types of sites have changed people’s expectations for how easy it should be to contribute content. That is, users now expect that it should be as easy to write a blog post as it is to share something on Facebook. If it isn’t — if it’s cumbersome or time-consuming — they’re just skip it. We’ve seen this happen already in the world of blog comments — particularly for sites that require registration to comment. People just get annoyed and post their comment on (and link to) a story on their Facebook or Twitter.
Where BuddyPress is really great is that in the latest incarnation of the plugin (version 1.2), the developers behind it have built that same kind of intuitive, user-friendly interface right into the experience of the blog. You no longer need to log into the backend of WordPress; you can start a while dialogue right on the front of the site, with the little “what are you doing” box to post your updates.
We chose to use BuddyPress for InJersey.com, our hyperlocal community blogs, because it has the best interface for ultimately getting people from the community to share their news on the site. We simply don’t have the staff to maintain dozens of hyperlocal sites entirely with reporters, so our goal is to make the sites very inviting to people in the community, so they can contribute 50 percent or more of the content.
You are also in charge of running 3-4 other community websites, however these are specifically for the newspapers? Can you tell us a little bit more, for example how they are used and if they are currently monetized?
We currently have seve hyperlocal sites live as part of InJersey. Two more are launching this week. Each one of these is tied to one of our six Gannett New Jersey newspapers and a reporter at that paper (typically a beat reporter already covering the town). We call these our site editors. All of the sites are open to public registration, and we reverse publish stories from the hyperlocal sites (written by both staff and community contributors).
Our sales teams have recently begun selling the sites. We have both sponsorship banner ads, as well as an interactive ad space called “Flyerboard,” which is sort of like a virtual corkboard. What’s really cool about Flyerboard is that it’s a self-serve ad platform (sort of like Google’s AdWords), where advertisers and come on and create their ads and schedule them to the site. But what it does that I haven’t seen other types of online advertising do is you can make your ad interactive, so that users can view directions to your business, add an event to their calendar, share specials via email and Facebook, and much more.
Are you working to pull more traffic off the existing sites in the Gannet Network or directly out of the communities you are visiting in launching the InJersey site?
We’re looking to attract people who are interested in the towns we’re covering — no matter where they come from. We of course use our newspaper websites to point to the hyperlocal blogs, but we also have worked hard at SEO so that people will find our sites on Google and news aggregators and the like.
You had mentioned on the phone that InJersey was partly being built as a response to Patch.com making big moves in New Jersey. When we had discussed this you had talked about the model that Patch was presenting as not sustainable. Can you talk more about how you see a sustainable hyperlocal model being achieved?
I’m really impressed with what Patch (and its parent, AOL) have built in the past few years. I believe Patch has ambitions to take its hyperlocal model, which it started in New Jersey, and turn it into a national network, with something like $50 million being spent to achieve that. One difference between Patch’s approach and ours is that Patch’s content is almost entirely written by staffers or freelancers. That is, ever hyperlocal site has a full-time site editor and a sizable freelance budget. The result is that the quality of hyperlocal content coming out of every Patch site is spectacular. I’m truly blown away by what they’re doing in towns like Cranford, NJ. They’ve even managed to hire away some of the most talented reporters in the state to help them see through this vision.
Our approach is different: As I mentioned before, we’re hoping to have 50 percent or more of the contributions on our hyperlocal sites be written by the community. User-generated content is a huge part of our vision for hyperlocal. It’s both pragmatic (the more UGC the sites have, the less manpower and cost is needed to run them) and engagement-oriented (getting people to contribute and interact with the sites will, I hope, mean they’ll get in the habit of coming back). As I understand it, Patch isn’t very interested in user-generated content; their staffers do the writing and publishing on their sites, not the community members.
84 Daily papers, USA Today and 850 Non dailys what’s the chance of you guys rolling out something more across the board?
Think Gannett would want to buy LocalsGuide ;)?
:) I don’t know. I’ve shared what you’re doing with my colleagues — as well as all the other hyperlocal networks out there. So far, I think most hyperlocals are still struggling to find the right mix. A few like Baristanet.com have managed to turn their efforts into a successful business model, but unfortunately, most of these examples would be challenging to replicate. if we can build a model that scales, though, I’m sure Gannett will be all over it. As a local-news company, it’s in their best interest to stay ahead of the curve in the hyperlocal space.
What is the citizen’s campaign you are involved with? Can you share a little bit about your appreciation for user created content? Where you see this all going?
The Citizen’s Campaign is a New Jersey non-profit aiming to educate residents about how to become citizen journalists. They’ve developed a whole curriculum around this. They recognized that our news gathering resources around the state aren’t as big as they used to be, but they’re not simply complaining about the problems, they’re doing something to fix them — empowering everyday citizens with the training and tools to do watchdog journalism.
On the grounds of creating community engagement what types of things are you doing to get people excited about InJersey.com
We’re reaching out to people in the community to contribute. We have photo contests, polls, and attend local events. Recently I’ve begun speaking to local colleges, universities, and journalism schools to see if they’d be willing to partner with us on new sites.
How do you see citizen journalists making money?
I’m not sure that people become citizen journalists to make money. I think when you start looking at reporting as a way to pay the bills, you’ve graduated from the mindset of a self-motivated, civic-minded CitJ to becoming a full-fledged journalist. But if you meant, do I see hyperlocal making money, the answer is most definitely yes.
Right now in the ring we have giant technology companies, flush startups, age old telecommunications giants, old school media moguls and individual hyperlocalist all going trying to stake hyperlocal claims, who is gonna win, and how do you see this panning out?
I think the ones who will win are the ones who not only break news about their towns, but also find a way to host the community conversation. If I had to bet, my money right now would be on Google or Facebook — neither of which has come out with a “hyperlocal”-branded product or idea (yet), but both of which have the developer firepower to do some pretty awesome things. Of course, I’m hoping that InJersey and our approach catches on, and I do think that we’re one of the only hyperlocals right now really pushing the envelope and embracing the whole social-site paradigm. But I have a sneaking suspicion others will follow this path soon.
Any last thoughts or words of wisdom?
If you’re looking for a wealth of information about hyperlocal (including business plans, video of some of the pioneers, and more), check out http://newsinnovation.com/ — a site run by Jeff Jarvis and the faculty at CUNY in New York.