"I think a lot of news organizations have approached the internet trying to be the center of their community and I don't think any news organization is ever really going to be the center of their community because people have their own centers. Their center may be MySpace, their center may be Flickr, their center may be World Warcraft. You're not going to be the center of the community, but you have to be able to connect people who are in different communities. So that's what we're trying to do, more than being the center, we're just trying to make it simple for people in their geographic communities to connect with each other."
By Sara Majka for MGP, 2008
9Neighbors is a new website. It's also an ongoing experiment in local news. It tries to answer the basic question: what's going on in my neighborhood? The co-founders, Rick Burnes and Theo Burry, have a question of their own: how do you keep this kind of business afloat?
The site, launched in October 2007, collects information for areas around Boston, MA: Boston itself, Somerville, Cambridge, Newton, and Brookline. There's a lot of content on the web, Burnes says, "but it's really hard to find that if you're an individual with a lot of other things going on in your life."
Recently, the 9Neighbors' Cambridge page had an article about mice found in the rice of a taqueria on First Street; a YouTube video of an "expert snacker" taken at the Shaw's at Porter Square; a photograph of Christmas lights at Harvard Square; and a snow emergency parking update for the Galleria Mall. On another day, there was an update on the fate of the president at Cambridge College, updates on the planning of a new park, and information about a local trial.
Rick Burnes and Theo Burry were working freelance with their company Faneuil Media when they got the idea for 9Neighbors. At the time, they were creating content for news sites by mixing data and software applications. For several projects they used local information---such as homicides per neighborhood in New York City---and applied it to Google Maps. They learned it was difficult to start a company based on creating content, as content was abundant. But it gave them a thought. If local content was abundant, then there had to be a need to gather and filter it.
"On the local level," Burnes says, "our feeling is the business of local journalism will be more editing and helping people to find the great content the community has produced not as much reporting and writing on your own."
How to finance something like this is a question facing a lot of people right now, and Burnes, a Boston native and current Cambridge resident, is energized by it. No one, he says, has made a business out of local news on the web. And he doesn't think a large corporation could do it well.
"There has to be a certain level of..." he starts, before correcting himself, "There has to be a huge level of authenticity and local voice. You have to understand and have relationships with the people you're writing about and you have to understand the communities."
Three months into the site's history, the plan is to continue to build it before focusing on traffic and advertising. A start-up round of angel funding has allowed them to work on the site full-time. They are also running Google ads. When asked about their strategy, Burnes says, "We don't really have anything too special up our sleeves." Advertising, he says, going out to local businesses.
When asked if he's found his group yet, the people who are attracted to this kind of site, he answers frankly, "The short answer is no, but we're looking for that group."
He sees a place for it. During the season's first snowstorm, the site was filled with pictures of city streets covered in snow. He was excited by this response. Excited by the immediacy of the local experience, and by being there, connecting people.