When Yahoo launched its new beta local sites last week I dismissed it as another missed opportunity - late to the game, aggregation-based and covering too large an area to be really local at all. Cory Bergman at Lostremote commented similarly that "it seems to be a rather minor effort compared to AOL’s steep investment in Patch".
On closer examination, this is a real launch into hyperlocal journalism by Yahoo, with local reporters generating original local content aross well-defined local news beats. What Yahoo is calling hyperlocal really is hyperlocal - named neighbourhoods like San Franciso's Haight Ashbury with a population around 10k people. And this is already a more extensive newsgathering venture than it seems at first glance - click "other locations" and you get options for multiple Californian cities, several places in Michigan and a single line for Brooklyn in New York. Click Brooklyn and it turns out there's twelve New York neighbourhoods on the roster already. Below the surface of this beta launch there seems to be a fair bit of iceberg.
Earlier today I spoke to one of the contributors to Yahoo's new local project. The brief from Yahoo is to come up with original local stories that aren't being covered anywhere else - stories that aren't just under the radar of the major metro papers or the city's "what's on" zines but stories from small local businesses, non-profits and other organisations that are often not even using social media to get their message out, so the story that appears on Yahoo often appears nowhere else online. A lot of this involves very old-fashioned local journalism, simply walking around the chosen patch and asking people what's going on; some of it involves an imaginative approach to research:
"I go for really obscure stuff...I look at the notices in the local laundromat because those are the people who can't afford to publicise an event any other way."
Different areas differ greatly in their ability to generate news. Walk around London's West End for a morning and you're likely to see a lot more going on than if you spend the same morning in a rural market town. Unsurprisingly, some of Yahoo's new local patches are good for three or four stories every visit; some are far quieter and it can be a struggle to find anything to say about them. Happily for Yahoo's local writers, they are not confined to a single local territory - the briefs that come in are to cover different neighbourhoods within a wider area (an approach that one suspects will lead to disproprtionate coverage of some areas versus others).
Yahoo pays around $10 for a local article - "if they accept it", which I was told they do 70%-80% of the time (the pay and acceptance rate for other writers may of course be completely different). Which means, perhaps inevitably, that "it's a hobby more than anything" - citizen journalism as a lifestyle choice accompanied by an honorarium rather than as a job. But the outcome is a long tail of unique local news by locally-knowledgeable, experienced writers working as beat reporters to fill Yahoo's local pages with stories that otherwise would not be told and that competing hyperlocal operations will be very hard pressed to match. Some of the stories that make it onto Yahoo's local pages, my source was keen to point out, are about tiny local charities that don't have the skills, the time or the resources to get their message out any other way and help them find extra volunteers for the holidays.
"I think the fact Yahoo's doing this gives some airtime to them, to work that wouldn't have been publicised without that. I think it's great what Yahoo's doing."