Column: The Hypest of the Hyperlocal
May 29, 2012 | Chris Koentges | Comments
Hyperlocal is just an annoying way of saying local
Vancouver’s blogosphere leaves the first impression of a big box Bikram yoga studio jammed with luxury condo boosters and whatever’s left of Roberto Luongo’s deconstructed psyche.
Beneath that, there are nuanced multitudes. Authors like Michael Turner faithfully update little patches on Blogspot with a more authentic version of Saltwater City (as Vancouver is sometimes known). Tangentially, you’ll find the quests for Xiao Long Bao dumplings, the odes to cycling, the all-purpose fetishization of Cascadia, the heartfelt leftist manifestos against power (of which The Mainlander has become exceptionally deft).
And then there is Scout, which is all and none of the above at the same time.
Scout is one of those slowly building, then overnight successes, in small part because it figured out how to tweak the established relationship between sponsor and content. For $500, a local business gets its name listed in Scout’s right-hand margin under the headline “Locals We Recommend”—and the opportunity to publish four press releases each month on the site. (Which can range from events to photos of a chef opening up a $10,000 order of black winter truffles.) Site founder Andrew Morrison says he often turns down requests from advertisers, that don’t qualify as local or recommendable, and no business he’s courted has turned him down yet.
On a hyperlocal blog, where the reporter is also the person selling ad space, the sponsor-content relationship is splayed quite refreshingly naked. (We take for granted that there are major daily newspapers in North America that forbid reporters from using the word “sprawl.”)
Morrison, who is also a food critic, founded Scout because he had an inbox filled with compelling little press releases from places he liked to tell his friends about.
At the same time, he couldn’t figure out where the Vancouver version of Gothamist was. If nothing else, Morrison assumed the established daily media would eventually leverage their professional beat reporters and decades of investment in local content. But the Vancouver tentacles of these corporations, historically headquartered in Toronto, eschewed their own hyperlocal gold in favour of pushing Bieber content into the stream.
Thus a set of pragmatic blogs with “Vancouver,” “Awesome,” “Buzz” and the city’s area code in their titles began to siphon the content already being produced, add a relentlessly positive spin, and build the sort of social media circles that real estate developers, casual fine dining chains and plastic surgeons find lucrative.
This only heightened the opportunity for an on-the-level hyperlocal daily website targeted at the sort of audience whose first question would be “Isn’t hyperlocal just an annoying way of saying local?”*
Whether his audience grows to 80,000 or 800,000—the sponsorship model means he doesn’t need to obsessively monitor stats—Morrison only pictures eight individuals. “If I were writing a pro development piece about [condo marketer] Bob Rennie opening a place up on the Downtown Eastside,” he says, “I’d know that seven of those eight people would give me a call the next morning and call me a dork for ruining our neighbourhood.”
The Scout MO places locally developed culture over visiting celebrities. Morrison gives carte blanche to writers, who have no qualms about taking a run at Vancouver’s sacred cows. And while it’s a flânerie blog more than a formally investigative site, the Scout brand is really established in the clutch. As the Canucks riots began last June, for instance, Morrison began a cathartic post about his city at the moment he hated his fellow citizens the most. It was not the kind of concise post that AOL can pump through its Patch network. It captured the Vancouver contradictions and in the process suggested that local is a method as much as it is a geography.
The Joan Didion line comes to mind: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”
Chris Koentges is a writer based in Vancouver. His work has appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve and Reader’s Digest.