Lessons learned on the hyperlocal news front

Mike Orren, founder of PegasusNews, writes of some of the lessons he’s learned for OJR. Several good nuggets:

The concept of “citizen journalism,� at least in a pure dogmatic form, is a myth. Myths, however, are critical to our understanding our world. We are often lumped in with the “citizen journalism� movement, and based on that movement’s ideals, I am honored we are mentioned in that context. However, after much reading, arguing and reflection, I’m done with that moniker. There are journalists – people who regularly utilize a set of commonly agreed upon rules to ensure that information is communicated in a fair and truthful way. Some get paychecks for that work and some don’t. And there are human beings who aren’t worried so much about rules or frequency or consistency, but who like telling stories, both visually and verbally. The Venn diagram of the latter completely encompasses the former. Journalists of any stripe are a relatively small portion of the population. They people tell stories with high frequency and are surrounded with others who tell interesting stories when they feel like it. They are a much smaller group, and you can’t count on them day in and out unless you hire them.

On the local level at least, data is what drives visitors. Stories bring additional pageviews, but more than 75% of our traffic is data – interactive calendar listings, band profiles, restaurant listings, political campaign contributions, drink specials and the like. Most of our listings aren’t found on the other local city guides – something for both traditional media and upstarts alike to think about. We’re always gratified when people dig deep into stories or blogs, but we know that the reason most people come in the door is to find out where to go and what to do. It’s our job to compel them to stay longer with good narrative content.

Local advertisers are hard to reach, but easily impressed. Local retailers, many of whom may not even have websites, are a huge class of business that is not flocking to pay-per-click ad services. And while that presents a huge opportunity, it means the hard work of picking up phones, knocking on doors and feet on the street – just like with traditional local media. However, once you get them on board, local advertisers are amazed at the precision, flexibility and business intelligence provided by online advertising. Restaurants used to paying a flat fee for ad space in a weekly are shocked that their bill is lower if you deliver fewer pageviews. Stores are aghast that you can change their sale ads every day. And entertainment venues love that you can tell them exactly which bands draw traffic on a site – and presumably to their venue.

The more obscure the content, the better. Once you’re playing on the local level, we’ve found (in general) that traffic to a piece of content is inversely proportional to how niche and obscure that content is. If we run an interview with a local band with a national audience, it’s no big deal. We’re lucky if they mention it in their blog. But, when we run an in-studio with a kid we found playing guitar in a coffee shop, he e-mails his friends and family who in turn do the same. He posts bulletins galore on MySpace. He links it in his e-mail signature. Good, but obscure content is great marketing.

Don’t fear user comments. Comments are the easiest, lowest-impact way to get users to participate and are the gateway drug to more prominent contributions. The trick is to really join the conversation and make clear what flies and what doesn’t. Most of the moderation comes on the user’s first comment, and by explaining why we’re moderating we’ve found that most of them reform themselves and become regular posters. We’ve had nearly 6,500 comments and have moderated fewer than 20. It isn’t a burden on our small staff to follow the comments – in fact, we find enough story leads in those comments that I can’t get folks who aren’t responsible for moderation to stop reading them.

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