With clock running out, East Village blog hopes

The Local East Village blog was born on Sept. 13, 2010. It may well die still an infant at the end of this year, though a precocious one. Started as a partnership between New York University and The New York Times, the hyperlocal reporting site uses NYU students to produce the content and The Times to host the blog, deliver traffic and ads and provide editorial oversight. That is, until The Times decided to pull out earlier this year, one of several aborted attempts by the paper of record to dabble in the minutiae of neighborhoods around the New York City area.

Now Local East Village has until New Year’s to figure out a model to keep itself running and the stakes aren’t minimal, either: as internships and entry-level reporting jobs have evaporated, journalism schools like NYU have started their own publications to give students the hands-on newsroom training they’re less than likely to get on their own.

Hyperlocal runs the gamut from poorly designed data aggregation networks, to pro-am efforts like AOL’s Patch, to high quality mini-newspapers. The Local East Village is closest to the latter: the student reporters cover housing disputes, rent hikes, complaints about nightlife noise, business openings and closings and cultural history in the stretch of Lower Manhattan east of Broadway and (disputably) from 14th Street to Houston, encompassing most of the school from which it draws its editorial ranks. The site has a full-time editor, former New York magazine writer Daniel Maurer, one paid staff reporter, and six student journalists receiving academic credit for their work.

Stephen Brown, a former paid reporter at The Local who also edited copy and occasionally took over when Maurer was unavailable, said the best part about the gig was the quirky stories from this famously quirky neighborhood, including rock club CBGB, an apparently senile landlord, an analysis of SLA licenses in the neighborhood and the site’s coverage of Star, a pitbull shot in the head by cops. Brown now works on the rewrite desk of the New York Daily News.

East Village Local isn’t the only experiment to fall victim to The Times’ changing moods. The Gray Lady also killed its partnership with City University of New York’s journalism school to run The Local of Fort Greene/Clinton Hill. And that was after trying to do hyperlocal on its own: The Times launched a site covering the New Jersey towns of South Orange, Maplewood and Millburn in 2009 to much fanfare, but shuttered it only a year later (reason given at the time: the newspaper wanted to turn its attention to starting up the Locals with the journalism schools).

“Our collaborations with NYU on The Local East Village blog and CUNY on the Fort Green and Clinton Hill blogs were always seen as experiments,” said Danielle Rhoades Ha, director of communications for The New York Times Co. “We learned some valuable lessons about hyperlocal journalism and collaboration but have decided to move on to other things.”

According to Maurer, working with The Times had both its challenges and advantages—readers had to take an extra step to receive the site’s daily newsletter and had to subscribe to The Times to read more than 10 articles per month since the newspaper implemented a paywall.

Brown, the former staff reporter, pointed out another drawback: competition. “The Local was too often quarantined from the rest of the East Village blog scene,” he said. “Many blogs opted not to acknowledge our presence, seeing the site as a threat.”

On the other hand the affiliation enforced high journalistic standards and The Times was a fire hose of traffic for the small startup. Though he couldn’t release specifics, which The Times keeps under lock and key, Maurer said site traffic has doubled over the last year. (Rhoades Ha declined to release traffic or ad figures.)

“With the help of The Times, we’ve built a loyal audience that will stay with us whether or not we’re on its site and I believe that audience will only continue to expand,” said Maurer. “We’re not yet at liberty to make a specific announcement but the project has been so successful and so valuable to our students that we are deep in plans for the next phase.”

He added that The Local East Village will continue to be a “laboratory for experiments” such as the “virtual assignment desk,” a WordPress plug-in that lets readers to see what stories are in production and allows them to pitch ideas or even volunteer to cover them.

Maurer cited the “Making It” series, which profiles successful local businesses, as one of the projects he’s especially proud of. He also pointed to a scoop about a recent shooting at the Campos Plaza housing complex.

“We’ve spoken with the victim and are still having ongoing conversations with residents about their security concerns,” said Maurer. “As an East Village resident myself, I’m glad stories like that aren’t falling through the cracks.”

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About Tim Sohn

Tim Sohn is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at timothyjsohn@gmail.com and on Twitter @editortim. Also, check out his website at TimothyJSohn.com.