Hyperlocal news sites like Nextdoor and Patch are changing the way people see, and learn about, their neighborhoods.
The hyperlocal trend got an infusion of cash earlier this month when the neighborhood social network Nextdoor scored $21.6 million from venture capitalists. The backers—led by Greylock Partners’ David Sze, who has invested in Facebook, LinkedIn, and Pandora—are betting that the platform for private, geographically based forums will be the next hot thing in local news and information, and even build community in neighborhoods across the country in the process.\n
They’re onto something with the potential to foster community. A long line of research, including Jurgen Habermas’ theory of the Public Sphere where residents come together to discuss what is in the news of the day have placed conversations as central to fostering civic dialogue and a sense of belonging. USC Annenberg Professor Sandra Ball-Rokeach has taken those concepts to a neighborhood level, and through studies of more than a dozen Los Angeles communities, has found that interactions between neighbors—whether online or offline—can help increase local civic engagement.
But her research has also found that conversations need to be complemented by neighborhood news coverage and links to local organizations in order to have a significant impact. Moreover, diverse communities require efforts that respond to their specific needs, and often that cross linguistic and ethnic lines and the digital divide. (These findings have all impacted our efforts to create a local news website, Alhambra Source, in a predominantly immigrant Los Angeles suburb.)
The challenge? Nextdoor’s emergence as a relatively low-cost model to jumpstart forums comes at a time when a recent attempt at hyperlocal news sites, and local news generally, has been faltering. The New York Times announced last summer that it will end its affiliation with the Brooklyn site it started, Fort Greene Local, and its other sites. AOL’s hyperlocal venture Patch still is falling short on promised advertising revenues. And earlier this month NBC shut down the local data collection and mapping site Everyblock. (Google “Everyblock” and you will notice that Nextdoor already has an ad up saying “Missing EverBlock? join 8,000+ neighborhoods who use Nextdoor.")
Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia—who grew up in Odessa, Texas of “Friday Night Lights” fame and based the site on the type of bulletin boards found at Laundromats and supermarkets—believes that his business will be able to succeed where other hyperlocal efforts have stumbled. Mathew Ingram writing in Gigaom on “What Nextdoor is doing right with hyperlocal and what Patch is doing wrong,” suggests that the major difference between the two projects is that Nextdoor requires people to prove their identity. What he also mentions briefly, and what could be key to its future success, is that the Nextdoor model is less expensive than Patch, which hired an editor for every community. (It's now also considering lower cost alternatives in its efforts to become profitable.)
Nextdoor and other forums can play a crucial part in a healthy news ecosystem, but they work best when tailored to local needs and in conjunction with other news coverage. Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online, responded to the article that she has observed the powerful impact of a combination of neighborhood news in her community. “Through Nextdoor I learn about break-ins within a three-block radius of my house; through Patch I learn about the proposed apartment complex being discussed at the town council meeting. Through Patch, I learn about a restaurant opening; through Nextdoor I learn whether my neighbors like the new restaurant,” Moos wrote. “Without Patch and Nextdoor, I would know almost nothing about this community of 17,000.”
Online neighborhood forums are not new, and two that have been held up as models for stimulating discussion and resident involvement are E-Democracy.org in Minneapolis and FrontPorch in Vermont. E-Democracy’s founder, Steven Clift, who started the site in 1994 likes to describe them as online town halls that “support participation in public life, strengthen communities, and build democracy.” To do so, his team works door to door in diverse communities, hires people from the area they are targeting, and employs community organizing tactics. But he also shared that lost pets are often the most popular posts and that they rely on local news coverage to provide context.
In my local Los Angeles neighborhood in Echo Park nobody has set up a Nextdoor forum yet, but I have the benefit of local news sites and other online bulletin boards. One case that works particularly well is the Eastsider, a site started by a former Los Angeles Times reporter who also happens to be my neighbor. In the past two weeks, seven out of eight posts from community members on his forum have been about pets—from chickens found on the entrance to the freeway to a found dog that had just been skunked. On the editorial side, most of which is created by him, are well-reported short posts about the record number of City Council candidates to why my favorite local gardening store is being forced out because of higher rents.
The combination of the forum and reported news has changed my relationship to my neighborhood—informing me, making me feel more connected, raising issues and generating discussion. In other words, it has fostered a sense of community.
\nA version of this story is posted on Online Journalism Review.\n\n
Daniela Gerson edits the Alhambra Source and directs the Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative at USC Annenberg, which aims to link communication research and journalism to engage diverse, under-served Los Angeles communities. USC Annenberg professors Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Michael Parks are principal investigators of the Alhambra Project.\n
Local news photo via Shutterstock\n\n