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OakBook Puts Hyper-Local Model to Work

Around two and a half years ago, experienced journalists Priyanka Sharma-Sindhar and Alex Gronke decided to bring what was at that time a mostly abstract concept -- hyper-local news -- to Oakland, the sprawling metropolis at the other end of the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

The pair noted that there were few blogs or local websites in the city at the time other than the Oakland Tribune, and little outside media interest in the city other than its high crime rate, including the many unsolved murders of young African-American men.

Into this news void, OakBook was born.

"We wanted to create a real community resource where people would find what the newspapers might not carry," Priyanka explained to me via email this weekend. "We don't compete with the local paper. We have news and information on art, schools, some politics, small businesses, shopping/dining.. and pretty much anything that we think an Oaklander might be interested in."

Gronke also contributed some hard-core reporting about a badly-run school, which eventually was closed as a result.

The business model behind the operation has evolved over time. They started out trying to sell ads, but soon discovered that "small mom and pop stores were scared of online advertising." So, in December 2007 they launched a bi-monthly city magazine, where the relationships they were building with local advertisers could be better monetized.

The six print isues a year soon produced enough revenue to support both the magazine and the online work. "(O)ver time, we figured we would be able to convince the small stores to come online," Priyanka says. All was well with the fledgling company until the current economic collapse, which, of course, in the media industry, is taking no prisoners.

So, this year, they are planning only one holiday issue of the magazine, but they continue to be in business because now "we are selling ads online due to the strength of our local presence -- and continue to update our website every weekday."

The story of OakBook is instructive to anyone considering how to grow a hyper-local business online. Building awareness and trust with local advertisers takes time, but once you have them, they often become very reliable partners going forward. Filling in holes in the coverage a metropolitan daily provides therefore represents a true business opportunity.

The role of print is still significant, particularly when you can build it to scale, and adjust to changing economic circumstances. For OakBook, their magazine was the best marketing tool to attract eyeballs and ads to their website -- the cross-promotional value proved critical as they became better established in the community.

To take a look at their website, go here.
Both Priyanka Sharma-Sindhar and Alex Gronke graduated from the U-C, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism in 2002.