The hyperlocal news site NEastPhilly.com that served Northeast Philadelphia for five years stopped publishing in December and was closed by founder Shannon McDonald. During that time, I helped her with strategy, reporting and web work. Since its closing, I’ve wanted to share a few lessons from that time.
Though it was an important resource for a growing number of people living in that part of the city, it was never a full-time effort. Shannon put considerable time into it as a passionate side project, and she had a committed handful of contributors, including me for for much of the site’s life. I designed her logo, helped maintain her site’s WordPress install (shout out to Sean Blanda for originally setting up her install and Jim Smiley for countless IT assists), helped with social media and did some regular reporting.
I genuinely believe it’s a loss — Shannon hasn’t found anyone to continue the effort and hasn’t even yet confirmed a new home for her archive of more than 3,000 articles (some aggregation but also considerable fresh reporting) before her hosting runs out in June [Update: They’ve landed with PlanPhilly]. It also dazzles me that the print community newspaper in that part of the city hasn’t clamored for ownership of at least her very active Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Though Shannon and NEast did lasting work — like better connecting previously fractured community groups through introduction and awareness and inspiring a new class of civic minded community members — it’s hard to think of that work being lost.
- Having a cofounder gives you strength and allows for specialized roles — Shannon is among the most committed and hardworking people I know, but in the end, her support network (including me) was small and limited. I couldn’t offer her more than a few hours a month. That means that she focused on what she knew best, growing the editorial product, but that meant the marketing, sales, branding and other work lagged.
- If you’re not successful in sales, you’re not desperate enough — Shannon took a role with local public media outlet WHYY in fall 2011 that she came to love. That meant both in time and priority, she was never going to deeply take on the big, messy challenge of business development. I implore other people hoping to take on this challenge of local media to not just try to hire a sales guy or a grant writer. You absolutely must be responsible for the first money you make or it’ll never work. Don’t outsource your survival.
- Set your goals early — Do you truly want to build this into a full-time venture? Do you want it to be a hobby? Either is fine, but they come with different processes. There is nothing wrong with seeing a hyperlocal site as an out-growth of a volunteer civic association. In fact, that’s exactly what I believe is a more likely future. We even pitched the Knight News Challenge the idea that what we learned at NEast should be trained and implemented at civic associations across the city: disclose your meeting notes and community concerns and let the web grow your audience. Whatever the case, know what you want to do early.
- Understand what motivates your contributors, supporters — You won’t start with any money, so don’t expect to work with professional writers, who should be paid. Also don’t lie to yourself about the ‘exposure’ you’ll be able to offer anyone. Instead find people who will want to get involved early for other reasons: community pride, professional leads or others.
- Community media that lasts will be of the community, not just about it — There is a good, generations-old, profitable and well-staffed newspaper called the Northeast Times, but community leaders treated NEastPhilly and Shannon specifically differently. That’s because from the beginning it started differently — she was seen as a resource that connected first with the existing network of civic leaders.
- You can get the experience you want out of any experiment — Maybe a year before Shannon closed up for good, I told her that I could no longer offer her much help. I was getting busy with my own media startup and I hadn’t lived in the Northeast for months. But I personally gained considerable experience working on NEast: it was my first proper graphic design work, I got another lab for niche media to contrast with my work, I saw what worked on social for a new community and I even did some real reporting, both two years of regular civic association meetings, a deeper profile or two and leading a report on an indicted state legislator. Perhaps even more importantly, I got a grew view of a special part of a city I love and came to know many new friends because of it.
- You cannot do this alone — There is so much hidden work in growing a hyperlocal news site, from the aforementioned IT support to contributors and community leaders who offer introductions. Find some way to bring on a team. If you can’t motivate and inspire and work with others, then your effort likely won’t survive either. That community of contributors and friends is one reason that Shannon did her work for as long as she did.
Below, I also share what I learned when pulling apart the site’s web traffic and insights from Facebook, which was, with 19,000 likes, a dominant referral tool for the site.
HYPERLOCAL AUDIENCE IS SMALL AND SLOW GROWING
Monthly traffic for the site grew steadily over time, averaging roughly 35,000 page views for the last few active months at the end of last year.
What niche media does is stitch together various smaller communities into a slightly larger one. That is challenging, labor intensive work because you’re attempting to form new habits.
FEAR, PRIDE AND RESOURCE CONTENT GROW TRAFFIC
Aside from the homepage, Contact and About pages, when I look at the most trafficked portions of the NEast site, a few things jump out at me.
First, I see the incredible (under-utilized) value of sticky resource-content, like the very simple Directory page, which brought together things like libraries, rec centers and polling places in clean, simple list format, and the Community Calendar, both of which I added with Shannon to serve as valuable evergreen content. (Both are still getting used today, months after Shannon stopped posting content). That also goes for listicles like posting in SEO-friendly ways the calendar of a popular concert series and pulling out what are flood prone areas.
Second, I see the common themes of (a) fear-based crime news and (b) posts that instill community pride (like the wickedly popular Right NEast/Wrong NEast column in which Shannon corrected legacy media’s mistakes about Northeast neighborhood references).
What don’t I see there? Any of the most labor intensive reporting: attending civic associations (which Shannon did tirelessly and I did sparingly) and the efforts we did to break new reporting ground. One exception here is her dogged work on the Holmesburg methodone clinic, which involved real reporting but was still clearly driven by NIMBY fears.
But that shouldn’t dismiss that work. Rather, I think they need to be repositioned. Traffic is only one metric. Attending community meetings was about relationship building, modest marketing (for the most core and loyal readers) and source cultivation (many of her news items came from people she met at civic meetings). The reporting? That was likely part branding and part mission.
FACEBOOK RELIANCE IS A BLESSING AND CURSE
With nearly 20,000 Facebook likes, the NEast Philly page drove real traffic to the site, including nearly half of all-time referrals. It was a profound discovery tool, giving NEast a diverse audience who might not otherwise be following a hyperlocal blog (read, an older and less digital savvy group).
But it also always concerned me that so much audience delivery was dependent on a company that was still updating its news feed model. That is, what Facebook liked one year changed and evolving over time. I also expect Facebook to grow its push for publishers to pay to get real audience, which means the free tool may become less so.
That means startup media outlets might be wary of depending too heavily. (On Twitter, @NEastPhilly grew to have 2,800 followers, which was a respectable number but a small player in comparison)
WE ARE TRAINING A GENERATION OF SHARERS
Though the largest age demographic of NEast’s Facebook users were in the 25-34 age demographic, they shared heavily NEast content allowing for 1 in 5 of those reached being in the 34-44age group.
All told, an average of 1,500 people a day were viewing posts on Facebook, even more when focusing on weekdays with content.