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Town Criers
As community news outlets disappear, a new breed of hyperlocal websites springs up.

Illustration by Jason Greenberg.

When a morning fire roared through Racine’s Mitchell Elementary School in late February, TV news trucks and reporters from Milwaukee raced to the scene. Most of them needed GPS to find the school. But hundreds of local residents followed the story on a news source closer to home: The Racine County Eye, a feisty online startup. 

Two seasoned newspaper reporters run the site. Denise Lockwood and Heather Asiyanbi live in the area, and preach a gospel that marries community news and website search-engine optimization. They learned it working for Patch, the ill-fated AOL experiment in hyperlocal journalism.

“You have a different relationship with readers when you’re seeing them in the grocery store,” says Lockwood, who lives in Caledonia and edited the Patch site there. 

Elements of Patch were easy to mock: fluffy profiles, parade features and promotional submissions from residents that were hard to distinguish from news content. Still, readers latched on. They appreciated news of road construction and restaurant openings that the Journal Times in Racine and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did not cover. 

“We’re reporting the news, but we’re also getting people engaged in their community and in the conversation, which I think old-school journalism doesn’t do,” says Asiyanbi, who ran Patch’s Mount Pleasant-Sturtevant site.

Patch alum Matt Schroeder runs another new startup, MyCedarburgOnline. He makes no excuses for spotlighting “good news” and featuring hometown shops that support the site. “I don’t think your audience really cares as long as you’re transparent,” he says.

The top-down corporate model tanked for Patch. So who pays for the hyperlocal startups? Racine County Eye partners with a local business promoter to sell ads, and MyCedarburgOnline works with businesses to co-sponsor events. 

The reporters have other jobs and work on the sites in their spare time. They have no news managers or staff, so they do their own copyediting. Checks and balances are spotty. “If we have errors, we literally have 33,000 editors and they are far from shy,” reasons Lockwood, referring to the site’s unique visitors per month. 

Relaxed journalistic standards aside, the startups say they’re filling a void left by newspapers that are redefining their roles in the digital world. Journal Communications is still a force in suburban coverage, with six NOW weeklies and about 15 reporters, but the local media giant once had as many as 50 reporters covering the five-county metro area, according to Mark Maley. He was longtime suburban editor for the Journal Sentinel before jumping to Patch to be a regional editor.

“You need a reporter going to city council and school board meetings,” Maley says. 

Franklin Mayor Steve Olson wishes one of the fledgling sites would come to his city. “There’s a lot going on here that our constituents need to know about,” Olson says, citing big-ticket economic development and the reconstruction of 27th Street. “Any coverage is good coverage.” ■

This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. 
Read the rest of August issue online here, or subscribe to Milwaukee Magazine.

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