Last week the New York Times withdrew from its hyperlocal news experiment in New Jersey. The title handed over the audience for its New Jersey branch of the Local to established, independent blog network Baristanet.com, carefully reminding onlookers that this had been an experiment, a test of what the Times could do at district level.

For independent, hyperlocal news busineses, the withdrawal will be noted with interest. New kid on the block MainStreetConnect, launched in March, has set-up nine sites and is growing rapidly.

The company will assemble teams of local journalists to run the sites as franchises, creating a network of independent sites. There's no initial start-up fee and MSC will help develop the sites and provide the infrastructure in return for a cut of each site's revenue (17 per cent). The network will be used to leverage advertising deals from bigger brands; while the franchise model is aimed at providing a truly local offering to readers and businesses, founder Carll Tucker tells Journalism.co.uk.

According to Tucker, who sold his own community newspaper publishing business Trader Publications to Gannett in 1999, the network could launch 450 URLs in the New York DMA (designated market area) alone.

"Times will be first to admit that it's not be successful when it comes to local. They have tried to offload those sites, they clearly don't have a model," Tucker predictively told Journalism.co.uk at the end of June.

"We are pursuing that [New York] very aggressively no matter what we decide. North west corridor is also part of plans - from Boston to Philadelphia and then looking some places in the south west. Where there are partners who might be ideal in starting up new ink blots," he explains.

MSC is aiming for 3,000 sites by 2013 - all offering community news: local sports results, real estate and schools information, and plenty of listings for local events, community groups and businesses. As a testing ground and incubator for business models for MSC initial sites are a network in Conneticut. The existing sites are attracting close to 40,000 unique users now and nearly 300,000 page views. The sites currently reach 33,000 unique visitors out of 80,000 English-speaking homes in their catchment areas, according to MSC, which is predicting 60 per cent household penetration within six months from launch.

But the company is under "considerable pressure" to roll-out new sites more quickly, says Tucker. One lesson from the "incubator" sites is that new destinations could be launched at a rate of one-a-day, but MSC will have to go faster still to get to a 3,000-strong network.

"Our initial funding [$3.97 million in an investment round] is just a fraction of what we will have to go back to market with in the final quarter of this year," he says.

"There's a very intense appetite for high quality community news that the 'Main Street mom' who is the core reader, who I have served all my life, will come for as a regular reader."

The company currently employs 44 people full-time and with its target of 3,000 sites could eventually hire 10-15,000 journalists. "We're helping to rebuild a profession," says Tucker. Not through quick-fire, regurgitated local news, he adds, but by relevant, community focused news and content backed by a business model built for the hyperlocal market.

"Our mission is old-fashioned: branded advertising and community news, but our belief is that only technology makes this possible. We're old-fashioned on the outside, but with a digital, technological centre," says Tucker.

"There's no question that the market will embrace it. We're not changing any patterns of behaviour: for time immemorial people have craved their community news and we're giving them community news in a medium that they are much more familiar with. And there's no question that businesses in communities are desperate for new, more effective ways to promote their visibility."

The company has described itself as "a cross between Facebook and the New York Times" and wants to offer local news that is of direct interest to readers, as well as profiling local people, businesses and organisations.

It's target reader is "the Main Street mom": "These people are glad to live in their communities. Many other local newspapers and media outlets only seem to focus on crime and the negatives of living in a local community."

This particular reader not only represents the highly-localised news the sites want to provide, but also carries purchasing power, responsible millions of dollars of spending online in the US and the target of millions of dollars of advertising spend.

To tap into this market MSC is offering "annual visibility programs" to local businesses and advertisers who want "a storefront on the digital town green". These programs offer a range of packages combining online ads of different sizes with opportunities for business profiles, advertorials and profiles of customers.

The thinking behind the sites' editorial and commercial offerings seems to be about personalisation: referencing neighbours, friends and local figures; recognisable faces and names that will hook readers in to both news and advertising. This strategy plays out in the packages on offer to businesses, which include 'Customers Come First', the option to add snapshots of customers for a slideshow online, and a 'Celebrate Page', where advertisers can get an MSC photographer to cover an event.

"We don't see community news as a commodity - a click-through has nothing to do with those type of business deals and relationships of trust. We're building that in an old fashioned way by being on the digital town green. We are digital but it's exactly the old way of working with advertisers and local businesses," says Tucker.

It's an old way of working for a new start-up. Tucker is keenly aware that MSC isn't the only new kid in the town, or on the town green in this case. AOL's hyperlocal plans with Patch are very interesting, he says, but it's not "an organic model".

"Patch hires journalists and puts them into the community. We have much more resource to put amongst newsgathering and it's coming from the community. The other huge difference is that they're not a revenue supported model. They are simply spending money, they've no advertising model that we can see. Burnout of Patch editors is very high. We work incredibly hard but you have to have a life too," he says.

"It's always tricky when you grow at a rate like this, because you can make big mistakes in a big hurry. There's a need and certainly a demand for this though."

The top salary for journalists running the sites will be $40,000 (£26,307) - not a fortune admits Tucker, but a wage that rewards journalists committed to quality local news. The plan may be to create 3,000 sites in three years, but this will not be a content factory: "If you help us create the dream we're committed to helping you share in that success."

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).

blog comments powered by Disqus