The cable giant Comcast is reviving the once-future of local online news, announcing on its corporate blog that it has expanded its relaunch of the news and social site EveryBlock to include its home city of Philadelphia, at the same time the company is digging into its potential nation-wide merger with Time Warner Cable.
"EveryBlock," writes Comcast's director of local media development Paul Wright, "is a personalized news feed that allows users to stay connected with neighbors, interact and share what's happening on their block, and discover great content and information from around their area. The hyper-local site aggregates news, reviews, events, local blogs and other web content, civic data (like crime reports and 311 requests), as well as user-generated questions and comments, and packages it into a personalized feed for users."
In Chicago, writes Wright, the company is seeing interest from "Chicago-based community organizations, elected officials and other partners who are using EveryBlock as their go-to local communications tool."
Once the grassroots-iest of grassroots news sites, EveryBlock is now the local wing of a $100 billion global conglomerate. And its evolution serves as something of a proxy for that of the news business over the last handful of years.
EveryBlock began in 2007 as a side project for then-washingtonpost.com innovations team member Adrian Holovaty, and soon picked up a $1.1 million Knight Foundation grant. The platform was the highest-profile demonstration of the belief that the Internet's effect on local news would be to revitalize it. Holovaty sold the platform to MSNBC.com in 2009, part of a trend of national news organizations attempting to solve their problems with "local" by bolting on home-grown small-bore news platforms. But after passing hands to NBC News, EveryBlock was shuttered last year.
Blogged a saddened Holovaty at the time -- when he was no longer with the company -- "EveryBlock was among the more innovative and ambitious journalism projects at a time when journalism desperately needed innovation and ambition. RIP."
But EveryBlock got a second lease on life when Comcast went on to acquire NBCUniversal. (According to Wright, EveryBlock was internally transferred from NBC News to Comcast's local news team in 2013.)
Holovaty, in an e-mail, describes himself both pleased and doubtful. "I've enjoyed having EveryBlock back because it helps me know what's happening in my neighborhood," he says. "But I'm very skeptical about Comcast's ability to maintain the site well. They've given a lot of lip service to putting resources into it, but behind the scenes they aren't doing much moderation, resulting in off-topic discussions on the site. Plus, more broadly, they don't have a vision for it."
Holovaty, moreover, says he finds himself wondering about the company's motives. And he's not alone. Hannah Sassaman is the policy director at the Philly-based Media Mobilizing Project, which has pushed Comcast to do more for its home city. "EveryBlock seems to offer some useful tools," she writes, but adds, "if Comcast is committed to people getting access to the news and community views they need, they should increase their commitments to public access community media centers nationwide, rather than threaten those centers with cuts when they negotiate new 15-year franchise deals to make huge profits in our cities, states, and towns."
Comcast is pursuing a merger with Time Warner Cable and can use all the help that it can get on the ground. It doesn't hurt for the company to have a local channel -- or, more accurately, a bushel of local channels -- at a time when the Federal Communications Commission is likely to start demanding that the company prove the value it adds to the communities it hopes to serve post-merger.
But Wright said in a call that EveryBlock's revival had nothing to do with the merger, saying that "our department has been working at this sort of community engagement for the past few years." Asked if there is a plan for making money with the sites, Wright said that it was part of the company's commitment to community investment. "At our core, Comcast is a local community company," he said. "EveryBlock is a fantastic way to increase the ability of community members to discover the people and the content in their own backyards."
Comcast says that it plans to expand the rebooted EveryBlock to the Houston, Denver, Miami, Boston, and Fresno areas in the coming months.