Hyperlocal reporting, mobile technology key to community building

People are desperate to connect, even as there is less time to do so.

That's what John Futhey, managing director of community and specialty sites at Metroland media group, told delegates Thursday at Ink + Beyond, the annual conference hosted by the Canadian Newspaper Association, the Canadian Community Newspapers Association and the Canadian Circulation Management Association.

While the ways people connect are constantly changing, the human desire to feel part of a community has remained constant, he says.

"Everything we are hearing and everything we're doing reflects the fact that community building is more important than ever, people are desperate to engage to, feel part of something good, something relevant." 

For newspapers, that means it's crucial to build communities. 

One way to do this is to provide journalism at an extremely local level, says Robert Washburn, coordinator of the e-journalism program at Loyalist College.

Washburn points to the emerging trend of hyper local sites, which have been gaining in popularity over the past two years particularly in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.

The current reporting model used by most newspapers begins at the regional level, something Washburn says is a mistake. Readers want to know about what's going on down the street, in their block and around the corner.  

"Local news is what makes people passionate," he says. "Mainstream news fails to connect with people where they live." He cites  blogTO, Ossington Village, and Windsorite.ca as successful hyper local sites that create community.

For newspapers, the question that should be asked is whether they are filling a need—Washburn says if a need is being met, a community can be built. Currently, there is a need for localized news, and it's an opportunity for newspaper to foster online communities.

Newspapers can also create a technological community through mobile phones, says Marlon Rodrigues. 

Rodrigues is a mobile specialist and director of business development for Polar Mobile, a cross-platform smartphone application producer now in its third year of business. The company has created smartphone applications for Maclean's,Time, Canadian Business, and even the Toronto Maple Leafs, among other clients.

"You can't ignore mobile. Mobile is in fact a leading platform, it has grown to a point where you can grow a reasonable business out of it, and it can amplify all the other work you're doing," he says.

Smartphones, such as the iPhone, Blackberry or Google's Android, make content available to users, many of whom may not be accessing a newspaper in any other medium, Rodrigues says.

Mobile devices are also proving a viable way to make a profit through active usage, something Rodrigues says makes ad banners a profitable form of advertising.

"Our job is to make sure that the content that we're given is mashed with an awesome user experience that encourages active usage over time, and that's… what really allows you to make money."