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Invasion of the Hyperlocals

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Just before New Year's Day last week the hills and valleys of Westchester County were invaded by an online hyperlocal news and information franchise run by AOL, Patch.com. Patch landings took place in Rye, Harrison, Larchmont, Bedford. Katonah, Chappaqua -- and one will be coming soon to Scarsdale.

So while one of the prime attributes of the internet has been to hasten the advent of an increasingly flat world -- where we can interact easily with brethren in China and Australia -- the demise of local newspapers in this country has created a dearth of quality local news and analysis. This vacuum has served as the catalyst for the development of online hyperlocal sites -- often consisting of lone bloggers endeavoring to create community and impart news and information of local import (such as this site). The Patch previously ramped up in communities in New Jersey and Connecticut -- and has now entered Long Island and Westchester. With Patch, AOL is endeavoring to connect to what it perceives to be the wealthier suburban communities ringing New York City. When AOL acquired the Patch Media Corporation last summer, AOL's CEO Tim Armstrong commented: "Local remains one of the most disaggregated experiences on the Web today -- there's a lot of information out there but simply no way for consumers to find it quickly and easily."

At its inception in Westchester, the Patch appears to be a hyperlocal bulletin board -- with organizations', clubs', and schools' schedule of events; a police blotter; and a passing reference to local news events and high school sports scores. While early, it's not clear that the Patch will fill a gap long needed in the burbs north of Manhattan: an intelligent, deeper source of news and analysis about government, politics and business. Promisingly, the Patch editors are well versed in using Twitter -- to break stories and letting followers know that updates have been posted to their site.

What's the current news and journalistic landscape like today in Westchester? Here's a quick and non-exhaustive rundown:

The Print Realm

The Journal News: the Hudson Valley daily house organ of the weakened Gannett media empire. Over the past decade, the Journal News has pared down its news gathering and reporting efforts. And within the past two years, this decline has picked up speed. In last year's local election cycle -- there was slim substantive coverage of local races beyond the County Executive and District Attorney races. In local mayoral elections in Rye and Harrison for example, the only source of information about the campaigns came from campaign mailings. Nowhere did I find any kind of analysis or digging into issues, claims, charges, allegations, political posturings, etc... The best a local voter could do was read between the lines. The apparently shocking result in the county executive upset of Rob Astorino over 3-term incumbent Andy Spano -- may or may not have been shocking if there was any kind of analysis or coverage of the race. Save some acidic commentary from Journal News columnist Phil Reisman -- no real issues were brought to bear on this race.

In the past few years, The Journal News has also dramatically cutback its business news coverage. Two years ago there was a separate business news section -- today it's an afterthought -- on some back page of a tertiary section of the paper. The Journal News also has a website, www.lohud.com, which essentially publishes all of their content on line for free. In addition, readers can blog about articles posted -- and many of these postings usually consist of vituperative, inarticulate personal attacks on the subject of the story -- or other bloggers.

While intuitively I would think that the local newsweeklies would be even more endangered than the Journal News -- many seem to be holding their own -- or at least they're still in business:

Weekly Newspapers

The Westchester County Business Journal is the only specialized business weekly in Westchester cover news pertaining to commercial real estate and businesses based in Westchester, the Hudson Valley and Fairfield, Connecticut. The publisher is Dee DelBello, wife of the former County executive and current uber-lawyer in Westchester, Al DelBello. The Business Journal website is fairly weak but republishes most of what's in the hardcopy for free at www.westfaironline.com.

The Hometown Media Group publishes weekly papers for Harrison, Rye, Mamaroneck-Larchmont, Bronxville-Tuckahoe, and New Rochelle. The stable of papers is run by Howard Sturman, and they have a website where you can access the print editions at www.hometwn.com. The editors there are also beginning to utilize Twitter for breaking stories.

The Rising Media Group publishes nine weekly papers for Yonkers, Eastchester, Harrison, North Castle, Mt. Vernon, Pelham, Rye, and New Rochelle -- but editorially is primarily focused on Yonkers. This is the remnant of the stable of papers founded and run by the late Ralph Martinelli. The Martinelli publications were less newspapers than vanity broadsheets where Martinelli could spout his conservative beliefs and launch personal attacks on perceived foes. After Martinelli died, the real estate housing the media company - and therefore the media properties were sold to a real estate developer, Nick Sprayragen (famous for most recently winning a condemnation case against Columbia University). There's not much original reporting here -- they run with lots of press releases from community groups and elected officials. Their website republishes the printed papers: www.risingmediagroup.com.

The Examiner Media Group publishes 3 weeklies covering northern Westchester -- Chappaqua, Armonk, Pleasantville -- but they don't have any sort of online presence.

Many Westchester communities have one-off local papers, such as the Scarsdale Inquirer, the Rye Record, and the White Plains Times, among others -- which all cover their localities with some idiosyncratic personality depending on the owner/publisher/editor.

The Westchester Guardian is a vanity broadsheet published by a noted Manhattan strip club owner, Sam Zherka - whose journalistic style the New York Times described as shooting first and asking questions later. They are currently pounding away on a story about the legal domicile of the new Westchester County Board Chairman, Ken Jenkins. If it weren't for the messenger, the story might have some legs.

The Westchester-Eye -- just when everyone assumed that the print newspaper is a dying breed, this Westchester start up has emerged as the latest entry into the Westchester weekly print news game. The Eye is published by two veterans of the New York Post, Kenneth Chandler and Peter Moses. They've been publishing the paper since late October of 2009. Their website, www.westchester-eye.com republishes print editions and they have no present plans to ramp up an interactive hyperlocal website. More about their venture here http://bit.ly/525VuV: The Eye's editor, Peter Moses has been an active twitterer .

As for other hyperlocal sites (in addition to the great one you're reading from), there are a myriad of sites but none right now with the ambition of AOL's Patch. Larchmont has a hyperlocal site, the Larchmont Gazette which is newsy and detailed. Rye has www.myrye.com, and Croton has www.crotonblog.com. I'm sure there are others that I have failed to mention. The New York Times has set up three hyperlocals in New Jersey and two for Brooklyn-- and is rumored to be looking to coming to Westchester.

The current financial model de jour for hyperlocal sites is to generate its revenue by advertising. AOL is hoping that aggregating its Patch communities will entice more significant advertising revenue. None of these can work on any sort of a subscription basis.

The hyperlocal turf in Westchester is ripe for growth and is likely to get more competitive and crowded in the near future. The real question, however, is whether any of these local media outlets have the guts to really take on some investigative reporting and muckraking.

David A. Singer is a former political consultant/campaign professional and political junkie currently toiling as a lawyer in Westchester and managing real estate and media investments.

Originally Posted on Scarsdale10583.com.