“Hyperlocal journalist” is not a title that gets romanticized often. To be a reporter or blogger for a local news organization in 2015 is to accept a lot of unknowns regarding audience reach and, in turn, economic stability. The need to compete for clicks and page views by pouring any and all available resources into technology has steepened an uphill battle to a full 90-degree wall, and fewer and fewer organizations are able to support their community journalism. The closest a local journalist gets to being romanticized these days is being called the underdog.
Blockfeed is a just-launched hyperlocal news app that wants to change that perception. In Blockfeed’s world, loyal citizens wake up and drink coffee with content from hyperlocal news sites in the morning; they might scan the New York Times for headlines, but in this reality, people have come to place exceptionally high value on the journalism that most specifically corresponds to their neighborhood, their street, their block. By successfully capturing local readership, these news sites boast the numbers necessary for forging valuable partnerships with local businesses. Blockfeed’s long-term vision goes beyond location-based curation; it wants to establish and nourish individual media ecosystems.
Of course, the operating assumption is that people want local coverage as much as they want to stay informed by reading the Times. Blockfeed, which is based in New York City, believes that this assumption is true — hyperlocal news just hasn’t been delivered in the most effective way, and consumers don’t know where and how to find it.
This is where the romanticizing comes in. Blockfeed co-founder and CMO Ben Goldman refers to local news sites as “passion projects” and lauds their ability to zoom in on a particular zip code with confident familiarity. In Blockfeed’s view, the reason local content gets cast aside in favor of content from larger organizations is because past attempts at news aggregation lumped them together based on too-broad categorizations and associations. Take the larger organizations out of the equation — or shrink their presence — and local journalism will be given a fair shot.
To better understand Blockfeed, it’s important to note that the company was originally Qork, a social local news app. Qork was built around allowing users to share their own information and content with each other, but Goldman and the team discovered that there was far more interest in existing, high-quality local news content.
“With Qork, we thought, let’s create a platform that makes it easy to share what’s happening,” Goldman said. “But one of the things we encountered early on was the chicken-and-the-egg problem. You need users to create content — but to get users, you need content. So we started to load in local news content. What we saw was pretty remarkable. There was a huge boost in user engagement.”
In addition, Goldman said, users were reluctant to create their own content. The need to pivot was clear, and Blockfeed was born out of a more refined goal: by providing consumers with the news that’s most geographically relevant to them, an important connection between hyperlocal reporters and bloggers to those consumers is created in a way that gives those journalists and outlets as much, if not more, authority as the Times.
The company — which is headed by Goldman, co-founder/CEO Philip Perkins, and co-founder/editor-in-chief Adam May — geolocates content from hyperlocal news sites, including restaurant openings, neighborhood events, news of happenings on specific streets. It’s not an automated feed; stories that appear on the app have gone though Blockfeed’s system of checking for quality and relevance.
“We’re not Google News with a New York City filter on it,” Perkins said. “We’re not looking for the words ‘New York City’ in an article and sending it to you. We’re accessing our users in a much deeper way.”
A constant issue for hyperlocal news organizations is that because a neighborhood readership can only be so big, economic opportunities tend to be limited. Blockfeed’s philosophy is that local news has the potential to be far more viable, because the essential components — content, an audience, and advertisers — have already been brought together by geography. The dots just need to be connected in the right ways.
“One of the problems we’ve identified in the space is that hyperlocal and community sites don’t have a lot of time or resources to explore advertising on their own,” Goldman said. “Eventually, we’d like to make Blockfeed another source of revenue for these partners, these news vendors, by handling the burden of advertising [for them]. With a tech platform like Blockfeed, people are going to get a lot more mileage out of something like location-based advertising from retailers or restaurants than a hyperlocal blog or news site would be able to.”
Another revenue stream is possible in Blockfeed’s collecting of information that could be harnessed in different ways by local businesses.
“We’re geolocating about 450-500 news stories a day in New York City,” Goldman said. “This is tremendously valuable data. We’re very excited about who might be interested in using data like that. For example, if someone wants to buy an apartment, a real estate agent can show them demographics, prices, what’s going on in that area.”
The Blockfeed model would be difficult to apply to smaller cities, and for now the company’s plans for expansion are focused on large cities like Boston, San Francisco, and Austin. But it’s those markets — with more media outlets and therefore more competition for consumers — that best fit the company’s desire to give hyperlocal journalists a platform they haven’t had before.
“We’re putting small, hyperlocal blogs and their very dedicated journalists on the same level as the bigger sites,” Goldman said. “It’s powerful. To be able to connect people to them is really heartwarming, really encouraging.”
Annie Melton is Street Fight’s news editor.