In the wake of discouraging news from hyper-local destination Backfence.com (in some ways this served as a testimonial to the sustainability of online hyper-local destination sites as we pointed out a few weeks ago), Sebastien Provencher points to a few relevant blog posts.
Long Tail theory creator Chris Anderson coins the term: "The Vanishing Point Theory of News" on his blog:
Our interest in a subject is in inverse proportion to its distance (geographic, emotional or otherwise) from us. For instance, the news that my daughter got a scraped knee on the playground today means more to me than a car bombing in Kandahar…There's nothing new about this (it's a truism of the American newsroom that Paris, Texas counts for more than Paris, France), but it bears repeating. The future of media is to stop boring us with news that doesn't relate to our lives. I'll start reading my “local” newspaper again when it covers my block.
The need to position hyper-local news content to help newspapers gain a local edge on competing news aggregators such as Google News and Yahoo! News was recently echoed by Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat, and by Editor and Publisher columnist Steve Outing. The Wall Street Journal (sub required) meanwhile reported yesterday on the dilema facing many papers - most notably The Boston Globe - to deploy finite editorial resources to local rather than global coverage.
Provencher also posts a retort to Anderson's theory from Terry Heaton's PoMo blog;
Even though I am a strong believer in hyper-local content being key to the evolution of local media, I'm not sure I completely endorse this theory (full-disclosure: I'm a newspaper junkie). Would a “local” paper without national or international news make it more relevant? It's possible but in this case, you'd need another newspaper to quench your international news needs. And maybe that's truly the future of the newspaper industry. In a few years, you might find only authoritative international newspaper brands (New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, La Stampa, The Globe & Mail, etc.) and strong hyper-local newspapers. All the ones in the middle will either have evolved or died. This is very similar to what happened in the retail business.
This is an interesting theory. The reality is that the web has commoditized national news. The only way to differentiate it is to have a specific angle of coverage at which you excel (Wall Street Journal), or unique voices that demand a premium (New York Times). Notice that these are two major papers that can get away with charging for online premium access.
The third strategy is to leverage a position that can't be replicated by aggregators; local. This hasn't really been done in a meaningful way online by local newspapers, or any national publisher with a patchwork of local assets. The opportunity exists, however, to create attractive and unique local destinations.
This could involve personalized news readers (a la MyYahoo!) that bring together national news, local news, classifieds, directory listings, local weather and sports, movie listings (traditionally all siloed into different search buckets). This can all be customized with RSS, and can offer a unique local experience (although challenges still exist in getting people to use RSS - partly a function of the confusion that yet another 3 letter tech acronym elicits, and the time it takes to set up a feed reader).
Still many of these concepts can be applied to search, by having newspaper websites that bring up many of these different types of content (classifieds, yellow pages, news that is local, national, and even that of competing publications) in search results. Planet Discover -- bought last year by Gannett -- is working on some interesting search products that do this. The next step is execution; newspapers that don't do this will continue to lose readers to the comprehensive experience offered by Google News and Yahoo! News.
The newspaper industry is clearly in a tumultuous time and there is a great deal of experimentation with online models (the creation of local ad networks such as Yahoo!'s recently formed consortium and that formed by Gannett, McClatchy and Tribune are other examples).
How to maintain the advantages of hyper-local in a scalable online business model has proven to be a sizeable challenge. But there is also an opportunity for someone to fill this hyper-local gap on a national level. Maybe it's Backfence (likely not), or maybe the truth lies in a low overhead aggregation model like Placeblogger (more likely), but it's clear that the need is there.