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.

Search drives serendipity, a continuing conversation

[Ed. note: This is the text of an e-mail I sent in reply to a comment a J-School professor from the University of Florida left on a post from a couple months ago regarding Serendipity on the Web. Part of his reply is posted at the end of this post.]

Hi Prof. McKeen –

Thanks for your comment.

Sorry if my post re: serendipity on the web came out as a let’s-all-slam-the-mossbacks routine directed at you. I’ve dealt with quite a few J-School profs (and heard from some newspaper editors) who endlessly wring their hands and shake their fingers when the topic of the dying print edition comes about.

“What about serendipity?” they say. “How will readers ever get to see anything other than what they were searching for?” they ask.

The idea they have always seems to be that the readership sits in silos, reading only news about underwater basketweaving, rather than reading all the top news stories, plus feeds on their specific interests, like underwater basketweaving.

But we were talking about serendipity, not the ongoing earthquakes in the relationship between the news organization and the “audience.”

When I do cross paths with a classroom full of undergrads, I certainly get your point about getting off their asses. It can be a bit depressing to sit in the back of a room while a guest speaker toils, talking to the back of 20 laptops. Some are surfing MySpace, and some are shopping, and some are chatting, and a few are taking notes. It’s not pretty, but when the speaker mentions something they’re interested in – bing – up pops a Wikipedia page or a blog on the topic – bing – up pops a Google search leading to more resources. Ubiquitous net access makes the world a serendipity engine. You’re on a bus, see a sign for a movie – bing – your cell phone is playing the trailer. You’re in New York at the MOMA – bing – your PDA is pulling down analysis of Starry Night and a detailed explanation of Van Gogh’s technique.

As opposed to, say, searching in the library shelves for these things later….. And I don’t blame the Dewey Decimal system, although it’s fun to do so. (200-289 for Christianity and 290-300 for everything else is always good for a laugh.) No, I blame the *later* part of the equation.

The Web, and user-directed search, offers instant information, and perhaps it’s this spontaneity and speed that encourages the user to click click click around at whatever interests them. Still not convinced? Try YouTube. Still not convinced? Try Digg. Still not convinced? Try PopURLS, which aggregates a dozen or so little serendipity engines — in the case of the ones powered by social networks, like Digg or Newsvine or Delicious, I have the benefit of everyone else’s surfing and clicking and distractions to provide me with places to start my own.

Don’t get me wrong — I love books, and print newspapers, and my collection of LPs, but it sure is hard to find what I’m looking for…. hmm… was that your point?

On rereading your essay, I still find your takes on online news and music puzzling. Like I wrote in my response, online news front pages are simply out of control as far as the number of stories goes. There’s scores of links, and headlines are everywhere. The sectionalization of the print edition is moot when all the articles are in one place. I never read the business section of a newspaper until I started reading news online, and even now, when I pick up a print edition, I often feel like I’ve read the actual news already, online the night before, or sometimes, in blogs weeks earlier before the story filtered up to the mainstream.

So what do I look at when I pick up a print edition? A good narrative story to read, to entertain me, to study the writing of it. And on a good day, I can find one.

On the music front, you lose me when you talk about radio…. Commercial radio is way, way dead. It is the most homogenized medium there is in our society at this point, with megacorporations buying up scads of stations and running the same short playlist over and over again, simultaneously, across a broad swath of the country. And you address this, but you should know that downloading music (legally or not) is just the geeky stepchild of that great serendipity engine of yore, the mixtape.

How great was it to discover a new band when a friend from three states away mailed you a cassette tape (usually about 3 stamps, depending on how much paper one wrapped it in) burned with their own idea of what you might like.

Nowadays I read about new music on a blog, download an mp3, and maybe I think about buying an album or downloading the whole album (legally or not), but the exposure is there, and when I want more information or another song, there’s no waiting to find it.
So, let’s call Search the catalyst of the Web.

Without Search, nothing pushes me past the point of Interest to Action.

With it, I can find reviews, information, samples, clips, pages — anything that will let me know an object, product, idea, person, or place a little better. Interest becomes Action.

[What follows is Prof. McKeen’s reply:]

I agree commercial radio is dead, but it was a vital force in changing the country’s racial attitudes, for one thing. Too soon to tell if satellite radio can fill the void. It does seemed to have most past its elitist stage.
When I said I was talking about technology-plus, it’s my way of trying to say that if we rely only on technology, we will lose a lot of opportunities to learn. And I do see a lot of students relying exclusively on the Internet. It does seem like many net-culture writers speak in absolutes. As Rodney King used to say, “Can’t we all just get along?”

What do you think? Does Search with a capital “S” make it hard to stumble upon things you weren’t looking for online?

This boring headline is full of keywords

I’m having fun reading the headlines on all the blog posts that refer to a New York Times story from a few days ago. The story, which sported the headline “This Boring Headline Is Written For Google,” sort of half-explained the fact that online editors are now writing their headlines to specifically appeal to a wider audience on the Web that might not know exactly what they’re talking about when the headline is taken out of context of its home paper.

Oh, and this helps things like Google News find your stories, too.

A few amusing blog post headlines from a quick spin around the Web:

And thus, (a little bit late, I know), I’ve written a blog post about bloggers writing headlines about the New York Times writing headlines about writing headlines for search engines.