Why EveryBlock’s closure is disappointing

There is a big difference betwen a signal of future potential and the path leading to its real outcome.

The future signal may be wrong even though the path to it might feel right at the time (PointCast, WAP, personalized home pages, Kozmo.com). Or the signal might be right, but the path to it may take the wrong turn (Napster, RSS, AltaVista, Flickr).

The longer I’m in the digital media business, the less sure I am that I can tell the difference in the very early stages of these trends.

For example, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that around 2001 I still thought Google was just another search engine and that it would be a temporary phenomenon. Even worse, I was sure that Facebook was making a mistake when it opened beyond the university networks to the wider masses in 2007 or whenever that was.

So, when things happen like last week’s news that EveryBlock closed down I have to recalibrate my thinking a bit. It’s clear now that EveryBlock fits in the second camp – right signal, wrong path.

I was never convinced they were on a sure path to achieving their ambitions, but I believed in Adrian and that the vision and execution were strong enough to get there with some adjustments and a little bit of luck.

Regardless of the dotcom measures of success, anyone who cares about news and journalism will agree that EveryBlock demonstrated something special about local information – an important step toward recapturing our neighborhood identities in a way that local newspapers used to do, or at least in the way younger people imagine they must have done.

I remember the launch of EveryBlock in 2008. I paid close attention to how it progressed in my neighborhood (Potrero Hill) even after I moved to London later that year.

The attention to detail in data was remarkable – both in terms of capturing the essence of challenging sources but also in the presentation of it. I knew a little about hierarchical geodata from spending time with the Maps and Where On Earth teams at Yahoo!, but EveryBlock was adding human dimentionality to those purely physical interpretations of the world.

For example, crime mapping was a particularly fascinating topic at the time, something I experienced first hand, and there were a few different approaches to addressing it in addition to Adrian’s own groundbreaking ChicagoCrime map. One of the very best that shouldn’t be forgotten was the ‘Not Just a Number‘ campaign done by Katy Newton and Sean Connelley in partnership with the Oakand Tribune.

Crime data is just one of the many information types that catalyze collective understanding in local areas, and EveryBlock rigorously tackled a range of different sources from construction and business permits to travel and commuting information to real estate data. They even started tackling social data including meetups, flickr photos and even conversations amongst EveryBlock users.

The result was a data-rich lens of local life.

People now expect this lens on their local life. It’s not even a matter of wanting it. It’s just supposed to be that way.

And EveryBlock executed on it very well.

So, if the vision was right and the execution was strong, what happened?

Without speaking to the team or NBC it’s not fair to presume to know the answer. But from my view as an industry observer and fellow traveler on the local media train my guess is that the problems were not so much errors in judgment but rather circumstantial challenges.

They may have arrived when local media incumbents were still strong enough to drive the news agendas in their respective areas, cornering EveryBlock into a data pureplay that wasn’t compelling enough for the news junkies to build an exclusive addiction to them.

Though I suspect the decision to join MSNBC in 2009 was completely appropriate and rational at the time, having MSNBC behind them must have limited the partnerships they may have needed to do with those same local media incumbents.

They may have been too early in the game of local data, too, stuck in an awkward market condition where the cities with both good data and tech savvy users were few and fickle.

Perhaps they needed original reporting. A more traditionally news-y positioning may have helped, but the wider digital media market has been flooded with countless startups that offer no editorial structure to them at all. That shouldn’t have been a prerequisite to mass adoption.

It’s probably some of those things and many others that we can’t see from the outside.

I find it very interesting that so many people are so disappointed. I think people would like to believe that good ideas done well will survive and prosper.

Of course, if the world were that simple it would be pretty boring. I’ll take chaos and uncertainty over the sure thing any day, even if that means good things die sometimes.

But, unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened last week when EveryBlock died.

One thought on “Why EveryBlock’s closure is disappointing”

  1. Thanks Matt. What you write is all very true and explanatory, but that is not unexpected from someone who knows the hyperlocal business like you do. Moreover, it’s a very good read because you have filled the article with love. Love for our trade, love for Everyblock, love for the effort that Adrian Holovaty put in his initiative.

    If I may add one aspect that you didn’t touch upon, it would be the lack of business perspective that was all too obvious at Everyblock. Before and after the takeover by (MS)NBC, Everyblock never seemed to be very interested in making money. Adrian himself has been very honest about it the two times I had a chance to speak with him. His goal was to build the best local dataplatform ever seen – and he did. Making money has never been on top of his mind. This was no surprise in the startup-setting Everyblock was in after the Knight grant. What did surprise me is that even when NBC was in control, this still didn’t seem to be among the company targets. And from my own experience (building a hyperlocal brand within a larger media company for the last three years) I have become convinced that without a business plan, without specific business goals and without the flexibility to mix your concept with the needs of the market, you will never become a success.

    So, apart from the aspects you mention in this post, I think that the lack of business focus has also been part of Everyblock’s problem.

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