Opinion: Hyperlocal focuses on news outside your doorstep that’s worth knowing

Sometimes the definition of news is as simple as whatever is happening right now — from outside your doorstep, from Washington, D.C., from half way around the globe, from outer space.

Technology has stitched together mankind in ways previous generations could have never imagined. These days, all news is local, immediately available and shareable.

This is mainly due to social media, which in my view is the technology that has had the biggest impact on news. Not only has it changed the way media outlets deliver the news, but it has also empowered communities to discuss issues like never before. It has also given media outlets greater ability to speak directly with our audiences about our priorities and theirs. Such is the power social media and digital devices that connect us all.

For a local newspaper, social media has forever changed the way we conduct the business of local news.

At The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, we’ve embraced the change and put to good use the new capability social media has given us to deliver news and observe our communities.

How big of an embrace? This big: About two years ago, the AJC, in an effort to apply the best use of these social media tools, created our Hyperlocal team of journalists. The team is managed by Senior Editor Melissa Hall and Hyperlocal coach Janel Davis. Hyperlocal’s job is to listen to our communities through social media and search engines. It’s to produce and deliver community level news based on urgent questions you raise or topics of high interest. It’s to establish deeper engagement with local audiences. It’s to facilitate conversations at the county and city level in the Atlanta region.

The best way to listen and to distribute that news is through social media, especially Facebook.

We live in an metro area of more than 5 million residents, with dozens of municipalities, some of the largest counties in America and the Deep South’s most influential city.

Often the priority of a large daily metro newspaper is institutional coverage that affects the most people, meaning we spend most of our time covering what’s happening at the state and county level with your tax dollars and providing a check on those powerful institutions. But not all news of importance is big watchdog journalism, or investigative, or high-stakes politics.

Equally important is what we deem “community-level” news, which is often the kind of news that further explains the world just outside your doorsteps or provides you with vital information that can help you solve the routine problems of daily life where you live.

Just this week, our Hyperlocal team let Marietta residents know that the beloved Rib Ranch restaurant will be closing after 35 years today. It let Duluth residents know that the city would soon have license plate readers up and working on major roads. It let Doraville residents know that maybe one of them has a lottery ticket worth $520,000 that hasn’t been claimed. It let Milton residents know that traffic will be a problem for months along Mayfield Road because the Georgia Department of Transportation is installing sidewalks between Mid-Broadwell Road and Charlotte Drive.

Avid newspaper readers know that it’s unlikely that any of those stories make the printed newspaper.

But such information is perfect for digital and social media distribution.

Because such news works digitally and is highly shareable, our Hyperlocal team is digital-only and distributes content exclusively through AJC.com and through five geographic Facebook pages. Between Cobb County News Now, DeKalb County News Now, Gwinnett County News Now, North Fulton County News Now and Intown Atlanta News now social media pages, Hyperlocal has more than 1.2 million Facebook followers. It’s a significant audience that increasingly depends on us to tell the daily story of what’s happening right outside your doorsteps.

We are able to analyze the metrics for the kind of stories you click on most.

Those metrics allow us to concentrate on the issues where you’ve demonstrated the most interest.

On any given day, the Hyperlocal team is focused on public safety and development. What’s opening, closing or building is a big interest in metro Atlanta, as growth and re-development touches nearly every community. Schools and how our children are performing is of high interest. So is crime, which is understandable.

Monthly, the team produces more than 300 stories aimed at the county, city or neighborhood level. A good portion of those story ideas comes from you and questions you have about your community. A Hyperlocal feature called Actual Factual, where the team takes questions from the public and answers them, has proven to be popular. The latest question fielded: Who is responsible for removing roadkill in Gwinnett? The answer, Gwinnett County Animal Welfare and Enforcement office. And did you know this: You can actually report dead animals for removal by at this email box, DeadAnimalRemoval@gwinnettcounty.com.

None of this work will win a Pulitzer. Occasionally, it will win the internet. That happened when Snow Mountain Park shut down because it snowed. It’s the kind of headline you can’t make up, and the internet, drawn to such irony, ate it up.

What we’ve discovered in this age of information overload is that the urgent questions of right now don’t always have obvious answers. The AJC’s Hyperlocal team is built to help you navigate. So the next time you wonder about what might be under construction in your neighborhood or if the trash pickup schedule is altered because of the holiday, just ask us. Chances are we either have the answer or can get it. And it’s information that’s worth knowing.

E-mail Deputy Managing Editor Leroy Chapman Jr. at Leroy.Chapman @ajc.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AJCLeroyChapman.

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