The local follies: Finding the horizontal bonds in geographic communities

[Ed. note: Yeah, so that post title sounds like a clever research paper title, which it could certainly be, if I had the time and the inclination.]

The Knight Foundation is giving away $25 million over five years to people like you with hyperlocal community news site ideas.

Now that I have your attention…

Online newspaper execs might throw around “local search” like it’s the Holy Grail of turning a profit on the Web, but how many people intentionally use Citysearch or something of its ilk?

I always think the best approach to this would be to tie it into a local community site, whether we’re talking about something as pre-fabricated as YourHub or as do-it-yourself as SavannahNow.

So what works?

Should newspapers try to re-invent the social networking wheel?

Probably not a good idea.

The Knight Foundation is looking for projects with a more specific focus, I gather.

“If a digital community helps people get together in real life, that qualifies. We’re just saying, for example, a community of model railroaders around the world is not one that we’ve designed this news challenge for. But something that might bring together Detroit teachers, that would work.”

Find a niche and then localize it.

It’s not about creating topical connections, it’s about creating a virtual community space, a water cooler for your town, and if you can, a place for individuals with both common interests and a common location to get together.

Sounds like a plan. Got any bright ideas? Hmm, I wonder if they would include a project based at a University…

Bryan Murley at Reinventing College Media might have been wondering the same thing a couple hours ago:

“If I were sitting down right now to plan a campus news site, one of the things I’d do is make a list of “directories” we could create for the campus community.”

Whether it’s on a campus or off, your goal, online newspaper executive, is to create a branded site, which may or may not be attached to your online newspaper brand, where users come to search for what they want in your community.

That can’t be the only draw, or they’ll just go to Google Maps. That’s what I do.

Want to know where to get a slice of pizza in Santa Cruz? Google Maps. Vegetarian Asian restaurant in Oakland? Google Maps. The boys in Mountain View even went so far as to change the name to Google Local awhile back, didn’t they? Bright idea.

So why isn’t your newspaper site the place your readers go to search high and low?

Interesting question. It’s certainly not my first instinct. I think alt-weeklies have cornered some of this market.

In this part of California, if I want to know what’s going on at local bars and clubs this weekend, I head straight for Metroactive, the online version of Dan Pulcrano’s Metro Newspapers.

Why? Because their search and calendar stuff is easy and simple to use. The Django-based stuff Adrian Holovaty et al did out in Kansas is even better, with a local drink special index. I cannot begin to explain how much use that would get here in Santa Cruz.

The off-brand branded site idea has been around a long time, but Citysearch/Realcities/Boulevard, etc. look outdated and feel pushy about advertising to me.

So what’s the key? Build a site where users want to hang out, where the news is strictly local, and maybe even a bit lighter than usual.

Make me want to hang out with my neighbors on your site. Then maybe I’ll use that big ol’ local search box to find out where I can get my brakes fixed in town, and – oh, lookie here – reviews from people who actually live in my town will pop up with my search results.

Yeah, the off-brand search sites already include reviews, but I sure would be happier about taking that advice if I knew a little more about those folks, if I could click on their avatar and see all their community posts, their comments on news stories, their own little page with pictures from their kids’ soccer game… Wait a minute, their kid is on my kid’s team!

Funny how that works out.

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