Hyperlocal Heartbreak: Why Haven’t Neighborhood News Technologies Worked Out?

Neighborhood news aggregator Outside.in has been acquired by AOL, according to multiple reports this morning. Apparently it’s being bought for less than the big pile of money that high-profile investors put into it, back when hopes were high. It’s sad, really: the ambitious hyper-local news technology services of the last few years don’t seem to be working out very well.

Outside.in, EveryBlock and Fwix are the three sites best known for building out automated collection and analysis of news about particular neighborhoods of cities around the United States. There is huge, exciting potential there – but it takes resources to develop technology and media sites like this. Maybe a shortage of resources is why none of these sites are the thriving hub of activity that many people hoped they would be. There are many different theories why, but all three of the leading startups in this space feel like a disappointment so far.

Give me the news about my neighborhood, please. Give me the restaurant reviews, the crime reports, the events listings, the gossip. Give me the art and the music I can find if I walk out my door. Give me a robot that finds the news stories too small for almost anyone else to care about. I care about what’s happening in the neighborhood around me and I want to see the fabulous new technologies of open government data, online news syndication, social networking and data mining all put to service to fulfill hyperlocal news wishes and dreams I didn’t even know I had yet.

Outside.in, for one, has been hobbled by uninspired Web design, the same shortage of users and community that all the big hyperlocal news sites have and a limited feature set. Everyblock, despite being acquired by MSNBC and having more and better data than all competitors, is a ghost town with an inflexible UI and a stale feature-set in the limited number of cities it serves. (I love Everyblock and check it every day, but even a redesign the site is currently testing is little more than a cosmetic brush-up. It’s disappointing.)

The third leading startup in this space, Fwix, looks good and works well all over the country – but feels lightweight and less inspiring than a magic mix of multimedia news about my neighborhood ought to.

We wrote excitedly about another machine-powered hyperlocal news startup called Nozzl Media a year ago, but looking at that site makes you suspect that company’s answer would likely be the same that several competitors offer: don’t judge us by our anemic home pages, we’ve got a powerful API that’s feeding hyperlocal news into countless partner sites around the Web where things are going great. All of these sites are led by widely respected news reporting super-nerds, but they don’t seem to be building what they could be.

Check out my neighborhood on Everyblock, for example. So far this morning there’s a beautiful big house for sale in the neighborhood, and a nice little condo. There a couple of good restaurant reviews and a couple of negative reviews for other local businesses. Last night there was an unwanted person report down the street, a meeting of local French speakers practicing, a car ran into a bicyclist and the police arrested a guy for allegedly holding people up at gunpoint at ATMs. Am I glad I scanned all that news? Yes, I am. Maybe most people just want to know about the ATM robberies on TV news though, and that’s enough for them. I think the rest of the news is interesting, but Everyblock does a terrible job presenting it well.

It doesn’t feel like this whole hyperlocal news technology thing is working out very well, so far at least. Maybe it’s not fully baked enough yet. Maybe the public hasn’t caught up enough. Maybe the economics aren’t there yet. Maybe local TV news is still good enough for users. Maybe hyperlocal is best when it’s hyper-human, not powered by robots. Maybe not very many people want what these sites offer. See the discussion below for other peoples’ thoughts on why this hasn’t worked out.

Whatever the problem, maybe AOL can solve it with Outside.in as a part of its small but growing local news effort Patch.

I sure hope someone can nail it. Give me the news about my neighborhood, please. Give me the restaurant reviews, the crime reports, the events listings, the gossip. Give me the art and the music I can find if I walk out my door. Give me a robot that finds the news stories too small for almost anyone else to care about. I care about what’s happening in the neighborhood around me and I want to see the fabulous new technologies of open government data, online news syndication, social networking and data mining all put to service to fulfill hyperlocal news wishes and dreams I didn’t even know I had yet.

It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen yet, though.

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