After providing a free platform to catalyze discussions around local issues, Joe Hamilton, publisher of the St. Pete Catalyst, hopes a new, innovative startup will further evolve local news.
Hamilton, also head of network for Cityverse, a virtual overlay for a physical city, told attendees at Thursday’s Innovation Gathering that he stumbled into the publishing business nearly five years ago. He now hopes to lead the next round of evolution in local news by utilizing new technologies and methodologies to bring the St. Petersburg community closer together.
Hamilton led a discussion titled “The Evolution of Local News” at the eighth annual Innovation Gathering, hosted by the Soaring City Innovation Partnership. Held at the RITHM (Research, Innovation, Technology, Habitat and Medicine) hub at Tampa’s University Mall, the event sought to explain the metaverse and why it should matter to people.
Hamilton recalled working closely with several St. Petersburg businesses and organizations before becoming a publisher. Despite those conversations bringing some of the city’s best minds together, he said the resulting ideas often amounted to whispers throughout the community.
“They just didn’t resonate,” he said. “And we said, ‘man, our communication channels in cities are kind of broken.’”
Hamilton launched the Catalyst in January 2018 to fill a void created by the decline of local newspapers and the rise in social media information silos. The first goal was to uplift St. Petersburg businesses and provide solutions-based content.
After “stumbling along” in those early days, Hamilton said the Catalyst began expanding its coverage, first with arts and culture after the Tampa Bay Times abandoned much of that segment.
“Pretty much anything the Times came out and said, ‘we can’t cover anymore,’ we decided to cover,” he added. “And having a positive attitude. The name ‘Catalyst’ is meant to say, ‘we’re going to put the ideas out there, start the conversations – but it’s really up to you to have those conversations.”
The local newspaper, Hamilton noted, historically served as a gathering space and set the tone and culture for a city. When those began to disappear, he said, so did community aspects, like people interacting with high school sports.
Regional papers and social media led people to engage with national politics and artists, Hamilton opined, rather than the creators down the street and issues affecting daily life in the city.
In between national and neighborhood
Hamilton said he identified a need to build a platform that merges the spirit of objectivity with granular expertise. Something to help establish the local culture, enhance the city and bring its people together – Cityverse.
Facebook users, explained Hamilton, typically follow friends, family and national influencers – who often share the same beliefs – but not their neighbors. Nextdoor launched as an app for neighborhoods, and he noted it went public through a SPAC last year with a $4.3 billion valuation.
“The key there is to understand that it had nothing to do with how awesome the platform was,” said Hamilton. “Because nobody thinks it’s awesome. But they served a tribe that wasn’t served.”
Hamilton added the remaining void in social news platforms exists somewhere between the nation and neighborhoods – in cities.
The idea, he explained, is to catalyze local conversations through experts who are still acceptably objective to residents. Hamilton used offshore drilling as an example. It poses a risk to the environment and tourism, but provides a domestic energy source and financial benefits.
He said offshore drilling is all those things, and if people only hear arguments from environmentalists or corporate proponents, they will never come together. He believes communities – in this case, St. Petersburg – are small and tight enough to understand different perspectives.
“It’s taking a small-bite solution approach to much larger problems,” said Hamilton. “How we’re going to activate that is to mine up gems of this knowledge and content from the community.”
The Catalyst, Hamilton told attendees, will provide core news to Cityverse, and the platform will offer content tools to the community. Content generated from the tools will be distributed through Cityverse channels. He gave several examples including neighborhood associations, which will receive a free newsletter tool. The most significant articles from the newsletters will appear in a ‘best of neighborhood writing’ section, and the best of that content, added Hamilton, could go into the Daily Spark – the Catalyst’s free daily newsletter. That would increase the distribution of the piece from hundreds in the neighborhood to tens of thousands in the city, so that the “best ideas can reach the most people.”
He said local high schools would receive sports reporting software so coaches or administrators could upload scores and highlights to a dedicated page.
He noted that every artist in Cityverse would receive a free gallery and the ability to upload their creations. They can automatically mint NFTs to display or sell, and purchases will upload to the buyer’s “home space.” The galleries will exist in the Cityverse art district with aggregated marketplace sections, art news and gathering spaces.
Utilizing Web3 – a new, decentralized version of the internet – aspects, Hamilton said, would allow people to, eventually, build a virtual civic life on the platform if they desire.
Every user will have their own home space, digital wallet and NFT gallery. He said a person’s gallery would become a form of civic self-expression, as it displayed the art they purchased or tickets stub NFTs for attended shows. They might also receive NFT awards from nonprofits for doing civic good, like beach cleanups or donating funds.
“But it also builds community around what you’re into,” said Hamilton. “It shows the art or sport or cause you love, and then you can connect with others that share that love.”
While anyone can browse Cityverse and purchase items, he said users would have to verify residency to receive a home space and gallery, contribute content and earn money.
Hamilton said the beauty of the platform is that it can take the best of the technology that exists in the world and apply it at the local level to reconnected fragmented communities.
“And if it works,” he said. “You win.”
The platform is under development, and he expects it to launch in early 2023.
For more information, visit cityverse.life.