By Robyn Brown

As large metro newspapers continue to downsize, could a new breed of neighborhood papers pick up the slack?

American newspapers are at risk of becoming insubstantial. That’s the conclusion from the Pew Research annual report, The State of the News Media 2010, which examines the current trends in American journalism. According to the report, newspapers have lost 16.9% circulation in three years and 25.6% since 2000, with big declines expected to continue further into 2010. Advertising revenues fell 43% over the 2007 – 2009 period. The report also states that “roughly 15,000 full-time reporting and editing jobs disappeared during that period, the total falling from 55,000 to roughly 40,000.  That means that newsrooms have shrunk by 27% in three years.”

Although newspaper readership  and ad revenue are down, the emergence of niche-community outlets are trending up. News organizations everywhere have been promoting news sites and papers as delivery alternatives that give readers detailed updates on what is happening in their neighborhood or on their block. The Newspaper Association of America calls it ‘hyperlocal news.’

One example of this local-is-better phenomenon is neighborsgo, the neighborhood news site of The Dallas Morning News. Launched in early 2005 as an experiment, print editions of neighborsgo now reach 39 Dallas-Fort Worth communities, while the online site touches over 75 communities. The premise is simple. Readers post stories and pictures online, and then community editors blog or publish them in one of the news site’s 17 neighborhood print editions, with combined circulation for all editions topping 250,000. Subscribers of the News receive a copy in their Friday editions. Free copies are also available at more than 450 news racks including area Starbucks locations.

The Dallas-Fort Worth community can also contribute to Pegasus News, another news site with a more arts-and-entertainment flair. Case in point: Pegasus features a location-based map showing area daily drink specials. For those who followed the link, because I know you did: Apparently, you don’t have to go far on Belt Line Road in Addison when you’re thirsty. But, we already knew that, right?

In other markets, there’s the Denver Newspaper Agency’s YourHub.com. Even more ambitious is EveryBlock, which seeks to post news content from 16 U.S. cities and their neighborhoods.

What’s the big deal?

It’s easy to see the appeal of hyperlocal news. For one, news in my neighborhood is more personal to me. I’m more likely to pick up the paper when I can read about my neighbors, kids and even myself. Another thought is participation. With the dominance of two-way communication inherent in social media sites like blogs, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, it’s obvious we want to collaborate in the news reporting process.

If you pick up a copy of neighborsgo or read neighborhood news from any one of a dozen hyperlocal sites, you’ll catch one noticeable trend – happy news. No one is reporting about robberies, murders or unemployment. Instead, you’ll see stories on neighbors coming together to build a community vegetable garden, about Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts collecting canned food, and the church softball tournament – any number of positive stories. Although I’m not minimizing the value of well-rounded  news reporting, it appears that amidst today’s economic strife and grim realities, it’s nice to read a feel-good story.

Will the experiment take off?

For now, the outlook for hyperlocal news remains open in many markets. Publishers are experimenting with niche sites and new technology, and not all succeed. Last August, the Washington Post announced the closing of its ‘experiment’ in hyperlocal, LoudounExtra.com, which covered news in Loudoun County, Va. One analyst pointed to lack of ad revenue as the site’s key downfall.

Using neighborsgo as a success story, perhaps a multi-platform approach is best. neighborsgo combines an online news site, editor- and reader-written blogs, a social network, print editions and integration with sister news outlets The Dallas Morning News and WFAA-TV.

What are your thoughts on the hyperlocal movement and how it will affect news reporting in the 21st century? Is it a sign of the times?

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