The history of the Web is littered with dead local news startups that couldn’t cut it as standalone businesses. BlockFeed, a local news app, hopes to avoid the news graveyard by taking the platform approach.
BlockFeed is taking a data-driven approach to local news by geotagging news stories and presenting them based on where users are. A reader in the SoHo area of Manhattan, for example, might see articles about the area’s M&M store or about a new shop from a Chinese fashion designer or fake Louis Vuitton bags in Chinatown. These articles were pulled from Vox Media fashion site Racked, New York City real estate site The Real Deal and local news site DNAInfo.
Using location data to present local news is a departure from the approaches of traditional local news publishers, which use their own editorial judgment to tell readers what’s important. BlockFeed says personalizing the news feed based on reader location is more efficient, which in turn makes it more valuable to users.
“When it comes to local, news is most relevant to you when it’s close to you,” said CEO Philip Perkins. “The fundamental factor is the distance.”
The app, which processes around 500 articles a day, doesn’t create its own content, making it more of a location-driven Google News for local coverage rather than an actual local news publisher in its own right. That approach has given it a sizeable store of data about not only which stories resonate with users but also where those users are when they read them. Perkins said that while parsing the location data would be an “intimidating” challenge for most news startups, the data will be a core part of the app’s eventual location-based advertising plans.
Most local news publishers, in contrast, are in a very different position on the tech and data front, largely because those skills are out of their wheelhouse. “There are still a lot of news organizations that don’t know about their readers, and about how to serve their specific interests and concerns,” said Josh Stearns, director of journalism and sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
The gap between most local news sites and BlockFeed is a microcosm of the larger rift between the tech platforms and publishers, the latter of which are ceding to the tech expertise and distribution prowess of the big tech companies.
But for local news publishers, which have smaller audiences and budgets than their larger, more well-funded counterparts, tech platforms such as BlockFeed are “game changers,” according to Brian Wheeler, executive director of Virginia-based local news site Charlottesville Tomorrow, a BlockFeed partner.
“There’s a major barrier to entry for a tiny non-profit to get a mobile app and database on multiple platforms. It’s just out of our reach,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it by ourselves.”