The national and regional coverage of Hurricane Irene was fine before the storm actually passed through my suburban New Jersey town. But then, what I wanted — and needed — to know came from my local AOL Patch site. There were fresh updates, pictures and even a brief video tour of the damage. The lesson here for broadcasters dabbling in hyperlocal websites or mobile apps is that you can’t do it on the cheap. Just like any kind of journalism, hyperlocal journalism takes well-educated, well-trained, responsible reporters and editors.
I have uttered the word “hyperlocal” thousands of times by now and written several stories about broadcasters’ “hyperlocal” efforts, but I don’t believe that I really understood what it means until Hurricane Irene paid a visit to my town of Chatham, N.J., last month.
That Friday and Saturday, I had my TV set on nearly continually to keep track of the storm and how it was affecting all the communities in its path, from North Carolina on up. My preference was Lonnie Quinn at WCBS New York, but I popped in and out of all the stations to see if they had a different tale.
Chatham is about 25 miles west of the Empire State Building — the western extreme of the possible paths that the eye of Irene could take, or at least that’s what Lonnie was saying when I finally went to bed late that Saturday.
By the time I awoke, the worst of the storm had passed, but it had clearly left its mark. Limbs were down all over my yard and, and while the electricity was on when I first got up, it went out at about 8:30 a.m. and was intermittent for the next day or so.
But here’s the thing. Once the storm had passed, I no longer had much interest in where it was heading or what damage it had caused elsewhere. I no longer had much interest in what the national networks or the local stations were reporting.
My principal focus was on Chatham. What homes and businesses had been damaged by flooding or by falling trees? What roads were impassable? Had anybody been seriously injured or killed? When would my power be restored? Would the water be cut off?
The radio wasn’t much help in answering these questions. The New York news stations were talking about where the eye of the hurricane had passed and valiantly trying to piece together a picture of how it had affected the entire metropolitan area of 20 million people. It may have been regional, but it wasn’t local, let alone hyperlocal.
Using my HTC smartphone, which I had been smart enough to fully charge overnight, I checked out the websites of the New York TV stations and of The Star-Ledger, nj.com., which covers northern New Jersey. Still, nothing close.
Then, I remembered Chatham Patch, one of the more than 860 hyperlocal community sites that AOL has been planting throughout the country. I tapped in and found exactly what I wanted to know, what I needed to know.
Not only did the site tell me where the trees and power lines were down and where the roads were flooded around Chatham, but it often had pictures of them.Throughout that gusty and powerless Sunday, I kept going back to the site and was rewarded with fresh updates, more pictures and even a brief video tour of the damage.
The coverage didn’t just happen. It was mostly the work of a young journalist named Laura Silvius, who had just celebrated her first anniversary as the editor of the two-year-old Chatham Patch. The California native is well credentialed, holding a B.A. from Bryn Mawr and a master’s in journalism from Syracuse. Before joining Patch, she was a freelancer in nearby Madison.
On that Saturday night, she raced back from a friend’s birthday party in Baltimore through heavy rain so that she could report on a meeting of Chatham municipal officials at 11 p.m. The next morning, she was out and about early, cataloging the flooding and downed trees and wires on River Road and Lafayette Avenue and Deer Run Circle and even right here on Rose Terrace.
She relayed information and warnings from the mayor, the chief of police and the head of the public works department. She monitored the growing sink hole on Dunbar Street. She passed along reports from readers, but only after checking them out or qualifying them with words like “unconfirmed.”
At one point, she reported that a bridge over Days Creek on Van Doren Avenue collapsed, exposing water mains and threatening the water supply for the entire borough. “We could lose our water,” she quoted Mayor Vaughan as saying. That prompted me to fill several gallon jugs just in case the pipes did break. (They didn’t.)
For one day, Silvius was the epicenter of all that was going on her beat. No reporter wants to be anywhere else, and she found the experience exhilarating. “I actually enjoyed it,” she confessed to me.
Her hurricane coverage may also have gone a long way toward establishing Chatham Patch as the go-to place for community info and conversation — the goal of all the Patch sites. For August, the site drew 27,000 unique visitors, she said, not bad for community of fewer than 20,000 people. “The hurricane was the first time we received an overwhelming response from the community.”
Silvius is not sure what lasting effect that response will have on the popularity of site, but it can only be positive. I, for one, have put the site among the ones I check routinely for non-industry news.
Most broadcasters understand that their future is in becoming more and more local or hyperlocal, both in news coverage and advertising. The upside in revenue is drilling down into communities for new business.
But the lesson here for broadcasters dabbling in hyperlocal websites or mobile apps is that you can’t do it on the cheap. Just like any kind of journalism, hyperlocal journalism takes educated, well-trained reporters and editors — and responsible ones, too. No editor stands between Silvius and what she posts, although there is some oversight by two regional editors.
If you want to operate dominant hyperlocal sites, you cannot spread your editorial talent too thinly, thinking you can rely on unpaid bloggers or user-generated content. You will fail to attract much readership. You will lose out to sites with young pros like Silvius or passionate amateurs.
I can’t tell you if the Patch business model makes any sense. According to reports, AOL is pouring $160 million into the venture this year alone, hoping that it can not only tap local advertising, but also, as Patch President Warren Webster told our sister pub, NetNewsCheck, national advertisers that “want to take their brand and make it local.”
It seems like a big gamble. But it’s one that every broadcaster should keep an eye on. As I said, you can learn something from how the sites operate. And, after all, each of these Patch editors and ad sales people are on your turf.
Now I know what hyperlocal means. You should too.