Fixing cities

Fixing cities

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Hoodline has also used city data to identify problems with city transit fare ticketing, historical Yellow Pages data to track the decline of laundromats over the decades and neighborhood-level violent crime increases, among other examples.

We’ve found that videos can often tell these data-driven stories in ways that text-based online articles can’t, by guiding people step-by-step through what the analysis means. For example, we’ve partnered with Disney’s ABC7 station in the Bay Area, with their news team doing on-camera interviews, on-air visualizations and digital-first videos alongside our reporting. Like local TV weather reports, sports scores and election coverage, we think video will become the main way that many people will consume this data to understand the world around them.

Besides this editorial work, we’ve also focused on distribution solutions. We’ve partnered with more than 200 other local publications to create a content distribution platform that is beginning to feed stories into a variety of sites and apps. As an exhibit of the product, check out this map of the articles from ourselves and partners in San Francisco, tagged automatically via machine learning for location, topic categories, sentiment and shelf-life.

ABC7’s Jessica Castro using some of our data analysis for a look at neighborhood cuisine trends. (Source: ABC7)

Next, we’re using public and private data to create a more comprehensive analytical layer on the platform. Eventually, we’ll be able to predict things like what kind of business would do well in that vacant storefront down the street from your house.

We believe in building a system for understanding the topics where each additional story adds value to the whole. And we think other local publishers should do the same.

Unfortunately, most local publications still treat data analysis as a bespoke operation. For example, The Los Angeles Times made an excellent map of voting patterns by precinct across the state of California, revealing at a granular level which locations preferred Trump or Clinton.

Maybe that map product will be brought out for the election cycle, and maybe there’ll be some analysis of changes in voting patterns over time. But voting patterns reflect all the other issues that the LA Times is writing about in each of these places, day in and day out. How do the voting patterns correlate with issues that might make voters lean one way or another? This map could be connected to local industries, housing and transit infrastructure, types of businesses, and everything else. It could help provide a much deeper story.

Click to use a live demo of Hoodline’s content platform.

Good news for the business of local media?

All of this brings us to local media revenues. Many in tech and media think that local news subscriptions are the best known business model, and it might start to work a lot better with new distribution and better content. There are also some other interesting possibilities.

First, subscriptions, which are also starting to result in success stories. “Most local newspapers are simply not worth saving,” widely read tech analyst Ben Thompson wrote in a recent post, “not because local news isn’t valuable, but rather because everything else in your typical local newspaper is worthless (from a business perspective).”

Tech products and larger online publishers have replaced or diminished the value of traditional local media newspaper sections and television segments, from sports to shopping to stock prices. To build a strong subscription business, as Thompson outlines, you need to regularly deliver a high-value product to the subscriber.

But local subscriptions all have to work harder, because local conversion funnels are a lot tougher to operate than global ones. The portion of the world that has become inspired to pay for The New York Times after seeing enough of its Trump scoops on Facebook is far larger than the possible number of subscribers who care about San Francisco, who might want to pay the Chronicle to cover City Hall.

If tech companies build robust distribution channels for local media, potential subscribers will be far more likely to be exposed to the free versions of content on a regular basis, leading them to hit the paywall and cough up the money. Or, their contextualized local content could augment the user experience for tech companies enough that tech companies end up being the subscribers (on behalf of their end users). Data companies might even pay to have their data distributed. 

There is a lot left to figure out. What topics and news formats would most appeal to potential local subscribers? Which distribution channels would work best for the funnel? What technology expertise is needed in-house to create the needed content? Which partners are best suited to help?

Now that tech companies are adding their firepower to solving these sorts of questions, I think the answers are on the way. And the result will be a whole new view of how cities work and how we can make them better for everyone.

Top and bottom image: Getty Images / Michael H

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