Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


July 27, 2010

Bursting the Hyperlocal Bubble

Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin reveals why he thinks hyperlocal isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Max Lakin

When Jake Dobkin, impresario of the Gothamist web franchise of urban concern and rabid hectorer/master curator of the staid cabal of Mainstream Media, last joined a Gelf Media Circus panel to discuss the business of hyperlocal journalism, he stated his feelings on the practice plainly: He didn’t care much for it at all.

Cut to a year later, when the hyperlocal model continues to gain notable footholds in serious markets—like New York City, where journalism programs at CUNY and Columbia University have yoked themselves to the block-by-block beats of major news organizations, and NYU is experimenting wildly in East Village—and Dobkin is still unimpressed.

Jake Dobkin
"Most hyperlocal bloggers make their rent doing something else."

Jake Dobkin

To be sure, the conceit of Dobkin’s own website owes much to local interests—some could argue it is rooted in the hyperlocal ideal, the popularity of his network of city-specific blogs pointing to a demand for niche content.

In the following interview, Gelf emailed with Dobkin about why he relegates hyperlocal to the hobby box, the few projects he can look at without laughing, and being besties with The New York Times.

Gelf Magazine: The hyperlocal sphere is something some media prognosticators are still leaning on as savior of the craft. Have your feelings changed at all about hyperlocal as a business model? Can it be sustainable? Is it even tenable?

Jake Dobkin: I feel the same way about it that I did last year—running hyperlocal sites is a very satisfying hobby and part-time occupation for people who live in a neighborhood or town, but that all except the largest can't be considered real businesses, and given the size they operate at and their attendant costs, they don't have a prayer of saving mainstream media. Good evidence of that is The Times's divestiture of its Local project to Baristanet and CUNY. The next datapoint will come from—they've said they're spending $100 million on it this year.

Gelf Magazine: So you think "hyperlocal" is a synonym for amateur? Your dentist filing dispatches on his commute, for example.

Jake Dobkin: I think most hyperlocal bloggers make their rent doing something else. A very small handful, like Baristanet and Brownstoner have turned the sites into small businesses.

Gelf Magazine: What tech or media start-ups are catching your eye?

Jake Dobkin: I'm watching Patch, Capital New York, Quora, and Foursquare.

Gelf Magazine: What about those interests you? Is it because you think they'll be successful, or because they're trying outlandish ideas?

Jake Dobkin: I'm interested in Patch because I think it will prove whether hyperlocal can work with a large investment or whether it can't work no matter how much you spend. I've been fascinated by the idea behind Foursquare (and a dedicated user) since Dennis Crowley started Dodgeball in 2004—it's going to be great to watch what he does with the investment he's raised this year.
I think Capital is interesting because they're going for long-form, deep thought stuff—which is precisely the opposite of the prevailing wisdom of most blogs. I don't know if it will work, but I think it'll be interesting to watch. And I'm interested in Quora because I think answering questions is an interesting area, and because it's exploring some of the same territory as another start-up I find interesting: Hunch.

Gelf Magazine: Would you say the Gothamist model is based, at least in part, in hyperlocal interest? Do you think the two share any principles?

Jake Dobkin: Gothamist operates at the local level—we exist to filter local, hyperlocal, and occasionally national stories, to find just the best stuff every day. To that mix, we add our own local reporting—occasionally that has a dash of the hyperlocal, but only if the story is important in some larger way across the city.

Gelf Magazine: How is the Gothamist empire doing these days?

Jake Dobkin: Gothamist is doing great. We hired our first outbound sales guy June 1st, and we're planning on hiring a second in the fall. Traffic hit an all-time high in June, and sales are way up over last year.

Gelf Magazine: Are you hiring on the content side?

Jake Dobkin: Yes. We just hired a new DCist editor, and a junior editor in New York. I don't think we're recruiting any other full timers this summer, but you never know.

Gelf Magazine: And the deal with James Dolan’s Rainbow Media? Why did that go away?

Jake Dobkin: I don't have any comment on M&A rumors, except to say that unless you read something from a named source, you should assume whatever you're reading is bullshit.

Gelf Magazine: You're saying we can assume that theories involving your spat with the Times and/or The Village Voice’s Foster Kamer's dick-joke are unfounded?

Jake Dobkin: Theories are just a polite name for rumors, which, as I've said, are bullshit.

Gelf Magazine: So where does the enterprising young journalist go to write now, and not wither in irrelevance?

Jake Dobkin: The young journalist has more options than ever: Start at the bottom of the ladder at one of the many new online ventures; go to work for one of the surviving papers or magazines; join one of the new non-profit journalism project or public radio/TV; freelance your own great articles; or write a book. Or start your own site.

Gelf Magazine: Though I'm certain you're tired of talking about it, and am loath to ask you myself, what are your feelings about the Times these days, and of your approach in critiquing it?

Jake Dobkin: I haven't changed my opinion about the Times: I think they face some big challenges as a company. I do regret putting that note up on Facebook. While I believe in the opinions I expressed, the way I expressed them was uncivil, and I should have thought twice before hitting "post." I apologized to the appropriate people at The Times at their executive panel in February, and in writing on Facebook later that month. I believe in calling a mistake a mistake, taking responsibility, and trying to learn from the experience.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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