Hyperlocal was supposed to rock our world. Journalism without the bureaucracy and legacy costs. Local readers who care. But somewhere between the foundation grants and tax-exempt applications and church service listings, it got both complicated and, let’s be honest, kind of boring.
That’s the view of Henry (Hank) Scott, a longtime media executive who launched WEHOville.com in October to cover West Hollywood, the center of LA’s gay community and a nightlife and arts hub. Spending $50,000 of his own money, Scott and his editor Dan Watson are taking a different tack from typical local news sites to serve this offbeat community of immigrants, clubgoers and affluent gays: hard news with a sugar coating of magazine-y snarky analysis and attitude.
“What I’ve learned on the business side [of journalism] is it’s not just about writing the news,” says Scott, who has held senior posts at The New York Times, Metro newspapers, Creative Loafing and Out magazine. “It’s about aggregating audiences that you can present to advertisers. That’s how you can make a news organization run in the long term.”
West Hollywood is not a typical American town by any stretch but it might be the prototypical urban community for launching a local news site. With a population of 35,000, WeHo is affluent, with a large contingent of homosexual men but also elderly Russian Jews, yuppies and young renters. Lying on LA’s west side, it’s no more under-covered by the city’s big media than other areas of the sprawling city but its affluence and progressiveness mean an audience that’s both engaged with their community and attractive to advertisers, if not always on the same page as one another: Scott breaks his audience up into gays, locals and visitors who come for the arts scene.
WEHOville serves these disparate groups a cocktail of city council meetings, arts and nightlife coverage and features like Scott’s popular column “Ask a Gay” (sample question: “Is ‘Gaydar’ for real?”) that’s a clear departure from non-profit watchdog sites such as Voice of San Diego and hyperlocal outfits that traffic in the minutiae of suburban communities.
“This is not Patch,” says site editor Dan Watson, referring to AOL’s line of hyperlocal sites that list Little League game schedules and yard sales (and exciting improvements to crosswalks). “We’re treating it more like an online magazine. It’s a local site on a bigger scale—and we pay writers.”
Two months after launch, WEHOville is getting 1,700 to 2,000 pageviews a day, according to Watson, boosted by social media campaigns and handing out flyers during events like the city’s famous Halloween parade. Local and national advertisers have taken out banner ads on the site, which was started with enough funds to run for a year with no advertising revenue. Aside from Watson and a small business staff, the site uses freelancers to produce much of the site’s content.
“I’ve been very involved with the Knight Foundation and they describe their mission as promoting informed and engaged communities,” says Scott. “That was in fact what newspapers did in the old days until they ran into so many financial troubles. So that’s what we’re trying to do. Develop an informed and engaged West Hollywood. Help the gay party boys understand why they should care about what goes on at City Hall.”