Until recently, a fender bender or a gas leak in Millburn, N.J., was treated like the minor event that it is. Then Jennifer Connic arrived in town. Connic, 32, is the editor of a Web site called Millburn.Patch.com, part of a chain of local sites called Patch.com, and since February she's been covering mundane events in this suburban town of 20,000 residents with a zeal most journalists re-serve for a big scoop. Connic shows up at so many auto accidents that for a time Millburn Fire Chief Michael Roberts began going too, just so he could deal with Connic's questions while his firefighters worked. At Millburn town hall, town administrator Timothy Gordon often spends part of his week alerting the Millburn Township Committee about what news Connic is likely to break next—so they hear it from him, not from her blog. For decades the locals got their news from a sleepy weekly newspaper, but now, with Connic, rival bloggers, and the "citizen journalists" they recruit walking the Millburn beat 24/7, Gordon sometimes has trouble staying abreast of town controversies. "They can come across problems before [town officials] know about them," Gordon says. (Article continued below...)
Millburn is ground zero in what is fast becoming America's first post-newspaper media war. Dailies like the nearby Newark Star Ledger or The New York Times once had local reporters who'd cover places like Millburn, but as newspapers' finances have unraveled, coverage of outlying villages has shrunk: in April the Times cut its news sections for New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island, and Westchester County, N.Y., to one page. In the last year, however, a group of community-focused blogs, run by journalists but relying heavily on citizen-commentators, have risen up to take their place. For them, no event is too local. Millburn.Patch.com recently reported on efforts of town officials to encourage use of parking-meter tokens, while rival TheLocal showcased "Rainbow Fish," a colorful drawing by a local 9-year-old.
As humble as it sounds, that coverage is making three New Jersey towns—Maplewood, South Orange, and Millburn (including its hamlet Short Hills)—a hotbed for cutting-edge ventures in hyper-local journalism. At last count, 10 different Web sites were focusing on the three communities—including the newly launched blogs Patch.com, funded by AOL; TheLocal, a New York Times–owned site; and Maplewoodian.com, run part-time by a Maplewood resident. Bloggers and media companies were drawn in part by the areas' affluent demographics and quaint, commercially vibrant downtowns filled with potential advertisers. And New Jersey is merely a launchpad for the hyperlocal upstarts. The Times, for example, has pondered the idea of franchising TheLocal to various communities. Patch.com already is swiftly expanding. At stake is the $100 billion market for local advertising, typically extracted from merchants such as dry cleaners and pizza parlors. Even as the overall ad market has declined during the recession, forecasters at Borrell Associates estimate local online ad spending will rise from about $13 billion in 2008 to $14 billion in 2009. In New Jersey, the invasion of journo-bloggers has amazed local officials. "We've gone from being sleepy little news towns to being boomtowns," says Maplewood Mayor Victor DeLuca.
The hyperlocal concept dates back to the early to mid-1990s. Microsoft, for example, experimented with an urban-focused entertainment-listings site called Sidewalk.com in 1996. But the concept really gained momentum this decade, with high-profile sites, such as Backfence.com, launched by hyperlocalism evangelist Mark Potts, and LoudounExtra.com, which The Washington Post Company (NEWSWEEK's owner) launched in 2007 to cover prosperous Loudoun County, Va. Thousands of hyperlocal sites have now sprouted nationwide. But the model has yet to produce a seminal success story—and in fact there have been significant failures, including LoudonExtra, which shuttered last month. Yet the Times's entry into the game is an encouraging sign that big players still see a future in hyperlocal coverage, a model that virtually eliminates the huge printing and delivery costs that burden newspaper publishers. The sites typically employ one or two experienced reporters, supplemented by mostly unpaid amateur commentators and interns.
If you live in one of the towns where hyperlocal sites are taking root, you're sure to notice the phenomenon. I live in South Orange, and first became aware of Patch's outpost there about a month after it went live. At the town's old brick train station, the South Orange editor, Cotton Delo, was handing out fliers to Manhattan-bound commuters. Several weeks later, walking into the Starbucks two doors from the station entrance, I noticed Tina Kelley, hunched over a laptop sporting a logo for TheLocal and a notice reading THE JOURNALIST IS IN. The New York Times launched TheLocal in March. Kelley, a veteran Times reporter who lives in Maplewood, covers her hometown and the two next door with three unpaid student interns and as many citizen journalists as she can muster for user-generated content. In a "Why We're Here" post that explains the site's philosophy, its editors proclaim that TheLocal will be "what you want it to be."
There's still wariness among locals unaccustomed to being covered so closely by bloggers. One Friday at 3:30 p.m., Millburn.Patch editor Connic is interviewing town administrator Gordon. He dutifully answers questions about the agenda at the next Township Committee meeting. As the interview concludes, Gordon reflects on his new life in the hyperlocal media spotlight. "They drive me crazy," he says. "You have a lot of people blogging who may not know the facts—what is rumor becomes fact, [and] I have to worry about running the town, not rumors." At times Gordon longs for the days when the weekly newspaper, The Item, was Millburn's sole watchdog. "It was slower, and [its] reporters mostly stayed in their office," he says. So Gordon is adapting. When the town's phone system went down recently, he relied on Patch to explain why town hall couldn't be contacted.
Patch.com was founded in 2008 by Tim Armstrong, 38, who was Google's top advertising executive until March of this year. That's when AOL named Armstrong its CEO; three months later AOL purchased Patch for an undisclosed sum. Now it has local bloggers like Connic and Delo running sites in 11 towns in New Jersey and Connecticut. That makes Patch, which plans to expand nationwide, one of the fastest-growing of the hyperlocal empires. In August MSNBC.com bought EveryBlock.com, which was founded by Adrian Holovaty, a rising star in Web-journalism circles. The site offers news about social, civic, and commercial life on neighborhood blocks (listed by ZIP code) in 15 U.S. cities, including Chicago and Miami. Three big newspaper chains—Gannett, McClatchy, and Tribune Co.—own Topix.com, which bills itself as a federation of hyperlocal sites. In August ESPN launched a series of city-focused sites. Even nonprofits are getting in on the act: the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation put up seed money for EveryBlock.com and other hyperlocal sites such as PlaceBlogger.com and Rural News Network.
The influx of new sites may be the first real threat to small-time bloggers who helped pioneer the hyperlocal concept. Maplewood native Jamie Ross founded MaplewoodOnline.com in 1997. Back then the site was an old-fashioned digital bulletin board, but lately it has added Web video and what he calls "nog," or newsy blogs. When Patch and TheLocal came to the area, Ross says, they picked off some of his bloggers and online commentators. He admits that it's nerve-racking to suddenly find himself facing the likes of AOL and the Times. "They have millions of dollars and I don't," he says. Outside observers say the bigger worry is that too many sites are trying to subsist off the same small base of advertisers.
Still, the sites are attracting readers, and with low expenses, they may prove to be viable businesses. Data from Compete.com, a Web analytics company, suggests that in any given month, no less than one fifth—and often far more—of the average population of the towns covered by the local bloggers is clicking on the sites. Patch cites internal data suggesting it's already reaching more than half the population in areas it's covering. Web-news guru Jeff Jarvis, director of the interactive-journalism program at the City University of New York, has done an extensive study of hyper-local economics, and he's optimistic. "The most startling and hopeful number I have found is this: some hyper-local bloggers, serving markets of about 50,000, are bringing in up to $200,000 a year in advertising," he says. That's small beans to big media companies, but if an operation like AOL's Patch can link together a network of $200,000-a-year sites each run by a single reporter, and then amortize big expenses (like technology and ad sales) across multiple sites, you could start to see decent profits. The low overhead is crucial: not only are startups like Patch using less costly labor, but they also believe readership and revenue will grow as networks of hyperlocal blogs link to each other, and as they become adept at persuading small businesses that never advertised in newspapers to give online advertising a shot—a key to Patch's strategy.
Journalistically, it's easy to dismiss the ambitions of sites manned by citizen journalists and unpaid interns—but lately they've begun to garner legitimate scoops. In September, Alternative--press.com, another hyperlocal site, broke a story of hazing at the highly regarded Millburn High School. Then Millburn.Patch posted an explosive story, including graphic details, of how female members of the senior class had circulated a "slut list" describing the alleged sexual escapades of incoming freshman girls. Other local bloggers jumped in, with TheLocal and MaplewoodOnline both advancing the story. Within days, the "slut list" scandal hit The New York Times and NBC's Today show. It's not exactly the Pentagon Papers, but as America's newsrooms continue to empty, the hyperlocal blogs are allowing a new generation of watchdogs to walk the beat—when they're not hanging out at Starbucks.