2:20 pm Jun. 26, 20123
The New York Times' three-year-old experiment in hyperlocal community journalism is coming to an end—for now, at least.
The Times has decided to terminate its collaborations with the journalism schools of New York University and the City University of New York on two websites covering the East Village and the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.
Both schools were given notice several weeks ago that the Times intends to end its involvement with the sites—The Local of Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, its CUNY collaboration, and The Local East Village, a site it developed with N.Y.U. The schools are still working on a timetable for detaching themselves from the Times, which has given them at least until the end of the year before the partnership officially expires.
“This experiment has had a good run and the Times has learned some valuable lessons about hyperlocal journalism and collaboration," said a senior Times editor who spoke anonymously because the plans had not been made public. "Now it wants to harvest those lessons and see where they might be applied.”
Originally envisioned as a marriage of professional local reporting and citizen journalism on the neighborhood level, the Times launched the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill Local, along with a since-shuttered sister site covering the New Jersey towns of Millburn, Maplewood, and South Orange, at a time when "hyperlocal" was becoming the industry buzzword of the moment. This was back in March 2009, when AOL's Patch was still in its infancy and there seemed to be lots of promise for a new breed of community news sites that would scale by selling targeted local online advertising, an end that has proven more difficult to achieve in practice.
The Times, of course, wasn't expecting a huge boost to its bottom line when it got into the game, even though it did sell ads against the various Locals. But for others who were looking to build up businesses in this space, the paper of record's interest nevertheless seemed a nod of confidence.
The Times also approached the venture with caution, however, noting in a press release that The Local was a "pilot project that is part of an exploration by The Times of ways to extend its journalistic values to serve and engage audiences in new ways."
It wasn't long before it scaled back its ambitions. Publishing duties for the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill site were fully handed over to CUNY in January of 2010 (the school was involved from the beginning, but the Times had been at the reins); the Jersey site shut down six months later and was replaced that fall with The Local East Village, which was conceived from the start as a project manned by N.Y.U. students and faculty with editorial guidance from the Times.
The Times moved on to other online projects in the meantime, including a collaborative New York education vertical called SchoolBook produced in conjunction with WNYC. The two surviving Locals continued to benefit from the Times' influential brand, URL and technology platform, but were more or less run independently by the schools, which developed courses around them and hired full-time editor-professors like former Brooklyn Paper editor Gersh Kuntzman to manage them day-to-day.
Simply put: The sites ceased to be a priority for a news organization with no shortage of priorities, including a growing list of new web initiatives that have been rolling out as readers continue to adapt to the paid digital model implemented by the Times last year.
"We're moving on to other things," said a Times spokeswoman. "These were experiments. We think they were very successful and we learned a great deal."
Several sources familiar with the decision said there were no deep-seated issues or tensions between the Times and the two journalism schools. One source who's seen the web analytics for the East Village and Fort Greene/Clinton Hill Locals said unique visits to both sites had gone up in the past year.
"It's not a traffic issue," said the source.
As for the schools, both are figuring out what to do with the sites after they shed their Times affiliations.
"We have no timetable and we are reviewing options," said Judy Watson, associate dean of CUNY's Graduate School of Journalism.
Watson also said she doesn't expect recruitment efforts to suffer now that prospective students will no longer be expecting a platform on a Times publication.
"While it's a disappointment, we anticipate no significant impact because so many of our students are able to publish in a variety of media outlets all over the city," she said.
"We remain committed to the project and to finding new ways of working on it, and we're considering a number of interesting options," said Brooke Kroeger, N.Y.U.'s faculty liaison for The Local East Village.
And the Times spokeswoman didn't kill the idea of a different Times hyperlocal project somewhere down the line, either.
"I wouldn't rule out future hyperlocal experiments if they make sense," she said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the East Village and Fort Greene/Clinton Hill Locals were exempt from the Times' metered pay model. They are not.