Everyblock's Obituary: NBC's Failure Is An Opportunity For The Next Hyperlocal Startup

Everyblock, a hyperlocal news startup born in Chicago, IL, died unexpectedly this morning. The official cause of death was its lack of a sustainable business model. It is survived by its founder Adrian Holovaty, a dedicated team, a community of users and what remains of the hopes and dreams for the future of hyperlocal journalism. Everyblock was six years old. 

The Next Step For Journalism

It was supposed to be the future. At a time when local newspapers were cutting staff, shrinking page counts and even shutting their doors, Everyblock was launched. Funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation, the site had a simple premise: Pull in news articles, photos and all kinds of public data sets, geotag them all, and divvy up the content by Zip code, neighborhood or even an individual street block. Let people subscribe to that information based on where they live. What could be more useful? 

In 2009, the poster child for news's allegedly hyperlocal future was acquired by MSNBC, who would presumably grow the site's feature set, expand to new locales and figure out a way to make money off of it. Frustrated by its inability to do so, NBC News shut the doors on Everyblock today.

I used Everyblock for years, mostly through my RSS reader, but occasionally through its website and iPhone app. In a city like Philadelphia, where the real estate values and crime statistics can vary wildly by the block, Everyblock was priceless. 

Any smart apartment hunt would necessarily include tapping open the Everyblock app to see precisely how many people get shot within a one-block radius, or three blocks, or five. Within the last 30 days or within the last year. What kind of restaurants are nearby? What are their Yelp scores? What do their inspection reports look like? Mouse turds at the pizzeria around the corner? Good to know. 

Whatever you needed to know about the place in which you resided (or were thinking of residing), Everyblock could tell you. It was brilliant. And it arrived at a time when the legacy news outlets in each of these neighborhoods was growing less and less capable of delivering this kind of information. 

Struggling To Live Up To Its (Huge) Potential

While I always kept the RSS feeds for my block and my neighborhood in Google Reader, I never grew quite as addicted to Everyblock as it felt like I should have been. The raw statistics were always interesting to watch, but the sources of more in-depth content seemed limited. I knew for a fact that my neighborhood was being covered by any number of local blogs and news sites, but those stories weren't popping up in my feed. Every few days I'd get an update on the latest geotagged Flickr photos from my neighborhood, but I never saw anything from Instagram, where the flood of nearby photos was much heavier. 

But then, there'd be a glimmer of potential. While Everyblock didn't publish content of its own, the site did have community forums. The one for my neighborhood wasn't ever crowded with people, but valuable threads would occasionally come up. Somebody would report a suspicious person going door to door on their street. Another post would announce an e-cycling event that weekend. Others would propose ideas to improve their community. With each of these posts, you could see the potential Everyblock had for becoming a legitimate hub of community news, data and discussion. But it never took off. 

Adrian Holovaty declined to answer my questions about the shutdown of Everyblock, citing a need to maintain his sanity and instead referred me to his own blog post about the matter. The news appears to have caught him off guard, just as it took Everyblock's staff and users by surprise. 

Could NBC News Have Saved Everyblock? 

What could NBC News have done differently? I'm sure we all have our ideas. They could have tacked on more data sets, integrated more content sources or overhauled the mobile app to make it more addictive. With multiple local editors in every city, Everyblock could have grown into a powerhouse of local journalism and information that might have filled many of the gaps left by declining legacy outlets. It's easy to suggest functionality and content improvements, but - as is always the case in this business - viable solutions for monetizing it all come less easily to one's lips or fingertips. 

NBC thought they could figure it out, but evidently weren't willing to try hard enough. Hell, they weren't even willing to let Everyblock's sites stay online and allow users play with them one last time. Not even a heads up. All that searchable, location-specific public data about our cities is just gone. 

Everyblock never managed to fill the all gaps that have been left in our community's information ecosystems. But it had real potential. Today, those gaps are just a little bit bigger in the locales where Everyblock was operating. We can only hope that the surviving legacy news outlets and the scrappy young media startups in these cities are collectively prepared to fill them.