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Despite Convention Hype, Gannett Shutters 17 Local News Sites

By Lou Phelps, Managing Principal, Phelps Cutler & Associates

July 18, 2011 – At the NAA national convention in Dallas in April, several presenters from the top 10 largest media companies announced plans to build their metro brands – and reach in their states – by launching ‘hyper-local’ community news sites that will publish online only.

Looks like some of them should call Gannett, before doing so. Gannett announced this month that it will close its InJersey.com family of sites that includes 17 news sites across New Jersey.

Ted Mann, Gannett’s New Jersey digital development director and founder of InJersey.com, wrote a piece on June 29, explaining his view on why the strategy that was launched in June 2009 had failed.

The bottom line was that Gannett’s plan was to garner half the content from local readers, to keep editorial costs low, which was possibly flawed.

Many news websites are finding success with the editorial model of 50% original news, 25% aggregated news and 25% reader blogs – an editorial budget that is sustainable, witness the success of Walter Brooks with CapeCodToday.com that is giving The Cape Cod Times print daily real competition for readership share on Cape Cod.

InJersery.com covered 10 towns, but “user-generated content rarely exceeded 10%,” said Mann, but he agrees that “the larger hyperlocal movement that we belonged to is as vibrant and innovative as ever.”

“When we launched in June 2009, in seven towns across NJ, we set out to create something new in the emerging hyperlocal space. We had plenty of inspiration: entrepreneurial journalists like Baristanet‘s Deb Galant and RedBankGreen‘s John Ward, the New York Times’s brilliantly executed “The Local” blogs, and Warren Webster’s wildly ambitious Patch.com (then still a baby, in just three towns). While many of these and other sites did an outstanding job of engaging with town and community leaders, we wanted to do more. To not just talk to and interview these folks, but to give them a platform to contribute posts, photos, updates, and more. Aside from the open-registration, what made InJersey special was that our contributors didn’t just use a form or email template to submit; we gave them full publishing access, and all submissions appeared alongside our staff posts,” he wrote.

They had splashy talent, but never gained enough traffic to garner sufficient advertising revenue to pay the bills. Sites finding success use very local talent and find and train community activists, turning them into journalists…versus the other way around.