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NBC News closes EveryBlock, pioneer of microlocal and data-driven news

NBC News closes EveryBlock, pioneer of microlocal and data-driven news


Adrian Holovaty's 'Web 2.0' startup 'was struggling with the business model,' says NBC's Vivian Schiller

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Everyblock Goodbye
Everyblock Goodbye

NBC News has closed down EveryBlock, an early innovator in using code to deliver a wide range of news tailored to a specific address. The EveryBlock team announced the closure on its blog.

"It's no secret that the news industry is in the midst of a massive change," the team writes. "Within the world of neighborhood news there’s an exciting pace of innovation yet increasing challenges to building a profitable business. Though EveryBlock has been able to build an engaged community over the years, we’re faced with the decision to wrap things up." In an email to Poynter's Jeff Sonderman, NBC senior VP and chief digital officer Vivian Schiller writes, "[EveryBlock] is a wonderful scrappy business but it wasn’t a strategic fit with our growth strategy and — like most hyperlocal businesses — was struggling with the business model." Just a month ago, the site unveiled native local advertising; it's not clear whether ad buys failed to meet expectations, if EveryBlock readers rejected the ads, or a bit of both.

Web 2.0 microlocal news site, built on Python and public data

EveryBlock was created by programmer-journalist Adrian Holovaty (along with Paul Smith, Dan O'Neil, and Wilson Miner) in 2007. It was quickly hailed as a key part of what has been called "Web 2.0". Holovaty's work, including EveryBlock, has helped popularize three key trends in online journalism: news for neighborhoods, not just cities, metropoles, or countries; gathering news sources outside of traditional articles, including public data; and using code and open web frameworks to automate generation and delivery of this information.

But EveryBlock was never able to really grapple with the explosion of local-but-proprietary data from sources like Twitter, a firehose that requires significant resources (and in some cases, formal partnerships) to incorporate. Also, as with traditional journalism, finding a web-native formula for supporting this kind of web-native news has proved elusive.

EveryBlock gathered news articles, blog entries, restaurant inspections, crime reports, building permits, and more to deliver a feed tied to a user's local address. It was an evolution of Holovaty's as well as his journalistic work at the Washington Post and Lawrence Journal-World. Later EveryBlock added community conversations and other content. Holovaty left his job as head of editorial innovations at the Post and took a Knight Foundation grant to build the site, using the Django webapp framework he co-created.

"it's making a difference for real people in real neighborhoods. That's what matters."

Holovaty called EveryBlock's approach to news "microlocal," distinguishing it from "hyperlocal" news that covered small geographic areas but in a relatively traditional way. Microlocal, Holovaty says, "is unambiguous in its level of detail: the 1400 block of S. Hill Street in Seattle is unequivocally 'micro.' Is a neighborhood micro? Yeah, kinda, depending on the size. An entire county, a borough, or city/suburb? No."

In 2009, MSNBC acquired EveryBlock for an undisclosed sum (reportedly "several million dollars") to support and supplement its local news coverage online. A 2011 relaunch as a kind of social network featuring short user-written updates never gained much traction. In July 2012, NBC News took full ownership of MSNBC's digital network, including EveryBlock. In August 2012, Holovaty departed, telling The Verge's Adrianne Jeffries that the "hype" fed by journalists and pundits excited about EveryBlock had faded, but that "orders of magnitude more people use EveryBlock than when we were darlings of the media industry."

He added that he hoped EveryBlock would continue "for a long, long time":

The folks are taking the long view on it, and it's growing steadily. Over the years, has treated EveryBlock really well, giving us room to experiment, advising us when we needed help, being very patient…

It's not sexy TechCrunch material, it's not what the Cool Kids like to talk about on Hacker News, but it's making a difference for real people in real neighborhoods. That's what matters.

On his blog, Holovaty writes that he is "very saddened by today's news" and that he "had no idea NBC News would be shutting it down." "The last time I talked with an NBC News representative, at a conference a few months after I left EveryBlock, he indicated that NBC was optimistic about the site's future," he adds.

From the outside, it's not clear whether NBC gave the project enough time or resources to succeed, or if the approach itself is inherently difficult to monetize. Only a month of selling native advertising doesn't seem like enough of a laboratory to tell one way or the other. Regardless, NBC News is moving on.