May 11, 2005

Local News: Who is Going to Write for Citizen Me?

When a nearby high school began an NFL-worthy reconstruction of its football field last year, replacing the sod that became slush at every high tide with several layers of gravel and fill topped by a synthetic surface that is as green as a Brazilian flag, I ranted to anyone about the cost and wondered who had authorized such a frivolous waste of John and Jane Q's hard-earned tax dollars.

The answer, of course, is that we did, I and my neighbors in Marin County who voted for a $121 million bond measure in March 2001 to upgrade local schools, $13 million of which was being spent on the football fields at three high schools.

How did I find that information? Not from a newspaper.

I looked in the "local" paper, the Marin Independent Journal, but couldn't find a word about it, probably because its archival search function was so funky (and expensive).

I looked in the "regional" paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, and I found this brief story, which told me some details about bond measure (one parent said the bathrooms looked "ghetto") but didn't mention the football field. Not much help. Neither was this post-election paragraph in a round-up story.

Then I did what I should have done first: I Googled the name of the high school, Mt. Tam, and found an entire page devoted to the project with several FAQs on the expense and regular updates on the construction.

I had found information, but not journalism. I had determined what was new, but had not read any "news" about it. My curiosity was satisfied; the journalist within me was not.

I am trying to ask a question here, but am unsure how to phrase it. I think it goes something like this: Can grassroots journalism bridge that gap between local information and local news? Is it even necessary to do so? Or is just having the public distribution of the information sufficient to fulfill the need of an informed citizenry?

This question is important because it addresses two phenomena in modern society that have created a journalistic disconnect.

First, our cities are not necessarily our communities. Second, newspapers, the home of traditional journalism, see it as their duty to report on the structure of cities - meaning the institutions of government - but increasingly have fewer resources to do so.

Most of us live one place, work in another, and choose yet other locations for our entertainment, our vacations or even our children's education. We live in communities of intellectual and cultural and familial interest. Our neighborhoods are platforms rather than destinations. This is particularly true in the generica of the emerging suburbs where many neighborhoods consist of little more than housing tracts and shopping centers.

Our communities are horizontal, not vertical, meaning they extend across location. News of these communities is equally unbound by geography. Enabled by technology, members of communities of interest, be they soccer parents, political partisans or professionals (like the people who read this blog), fill their needs for news and information with publications of special interest, both print and electronic.

Newspapers, though, view the world as fixed. They divide life into vertical silos of topic and geography and, because they report from a traditional institutional point of view, define news as the stories that fit into those silos. It is function following form.

Modern communities are water, spilling across space and time. Newspapers are rock, hardened and stuck in one spot. In the war of water and rock, liquid wins every time.

Even the traditional value newspapers brought a city, their ability to report on the workings of the civic institutions, is more and more difficult for them to deliver. There are fewer journalists, but more cities. Metropolitan areas in most parts of the country sprawl ever outward. Former farming towns grow into suburbs of a quarter-million people. New city halls and school boards and court systems demand coverage, but what's a newspaper to do? Small papers like the Modesto Bee, where local news is the franchise, dispatch reporters to outlying bureaus to file reports on meetings. Large papers like San Francisco Chronicle struggle with identity - Who do we cover? What are our priorities? - and produce regional roundups like the election story I mentioned above that fulfill some internal sense of responsibility but offer me, the citizen, no useful information.

It is a losing proposition and for newspapers to survive at a relevant level - the point, remember, is not just the continued existence of the newspaper business but preservation of an economic engine that supports quality journalism - they must change their definitions of news and the manner in which they present it. [Read: Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System.]

As you might expect, many traditional newspaper journalists bridle at that suggestion. But within their defensiveness is a very good question: If newspapers wean themselves from their addiction to stenographic meeting coverage in order to produce more substantive, enterprising journalism, who will fill the gap? Can newer grassroots journalism efforts fill the gap? It's even fair to ask: Should they?

Pat Lopez, a reporter for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, asked in the comments to my post on Mood of the Newsroom:

"What institutions should we stop writing about? Congress? Schools? The courts? State legislatures perhaps? I've had a bellyful of this stuff. Do you suppose people are going to pick up the newspaper to read about the man down the street? We get complaints EVERY DAY from readers who say our newspaper no longer has enough NEWS. That we have too much feel-good journalism, too much emoting, too much stuff that isn't necessary to their understanding of the world, the state, their communities." (Emphasis added.)

Certainly, the first iterations of grassroots journalism don't seem up to the task. Steve Outing, for example, labeled as "boring" the submissions to Your Hub, a venture of the Rocky Mountain News, in Arvada, Colo. I agree. But, it is interesting to me that many of these "stories" are being submitted by the institutions journalists normally cover - cops, school districts, etc. - and are no less boring than the news briefs that would have been written by newspapers about the same items.

Mike Orren, one of the founders of Pegasus News, proves quite convincingly with this report from a local anti-crime committee meeting in Dallas that citizen's journalism can be about much more than press releases or local lakes (not that those are bad things). Orren's post from the meeting, while not a "story," is rich with first-hand and linked information, deeper overall than any newspaper report would have been, were one even written. (I couldn't find one in this search of the Dallas Morning News.)

As Dan Gillmor has said, "we're all waiting to see what happens down the road" with grassroots journalism. Clearly, though, traditional news coverage of our cities, our neighborhood and our virtual communities leaves enough gaps for others to fill with varying degrees of hyper-locality and sophistication.

Gillmor and Craig Newmark, who is dancing with the idea of moving beyond Craigslist into some type of journalism, both believe traditional journalism is important and must be preserved. Newmark wrote in his blog under the heading "Newsrooms are important":

"With all the excitement about citizens' media, it's easy to forget how important current news operations are. We have a lot of journalists there, but also, fact checkers, editors, and so on, and they perform an indispensable function.

"I feel that citizens' media complements that, and that professional and citizen journalists will blur together in networks of collaboration." (Emphasis added.)

Spot on. I have said many times and continue to believe that the crisis that confronts newspapers presents them with a tremendous opportunity for reinvention, with a chance to refocus their journalism in more engaging ways. They also have the opportunity to enable and encourage more grassroots forms of journalism that operate in partnership with and complement the traditional elements of journalism.

Much work remains to be done. Blogs prove that virtual communities will gravitate toward media that serves them directly. Over time, I'm sure some grassroots journalism sites will overcome Outing's concerns and draw the local audiences who want geographic news and information but can't get in a newspaper. (I like Bluffton Today. I wish there was a Mill Valley Today. Steve, want to start one?)

The purpose of journalism will always be to inform the citizenry - not only about the workings of the state legislature, but also about the new football field down the street. The question awaiting an answer is: Who is going to write for Citizen Me?

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Posted by Tim Porter at May 11, 2005 11:39 AM

Thanks for the kind words, Tim!

Posted by: Mike Orren on May 11, 2005 12:55 PM

Tim another great post. I think that you're right about an information processing gap existing, between what a paper would call "news" and subsequently print, and what is finding its way into the blogosphere. A few things...

First, I do think the papers, local and big city, have totally punted on finding and filtering useful community news and getting it into print. While meth labs, murders, and fatal traffic accidents are interesting, they rarely get important community discussions going. Things such as traffic congestion, zoning, school spending, etc, deserve coverage so that communities connect, not continue to evaporate. Papers have failed here because they have not changed their methodology in a hundred years, so the readership has rightfully become bored with the continously boring presentation of these issues. If they evolved, they may be able stem the flow of readership away from the medium.

I think you're right that "local" blogging may become the next big thing...interested local parties, blogging on crucial local issues. Networking and leveraging the blogosphere to reach more people, while using all of the relavent
research available on the web...cost analysis on real vs. artifical turf, for example. I think this will happen as local bloggers are content in this realm, shying away from the "next big thing" mentality that is slowly migrating from the MSM to the "national" blog arena.

I think bloggers will eventually fill this gap...nature abhors a vacuum.

Posted by: Major Mike on May 11, 2005 04:27 PM

I live in suburban St. Louis, but my community is actually a 152-year-old suburb called Kirkwood, with about 27,000 people who all believe there is no better place on earth to live. We have what appears to be a flood of news media who cover news in our community -- the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which has a suburban section twice a week; a suburban newspaper owned by the Post-Dispatch and published weekly; and an independent weekly that covers our community and our rival community just to the east (whose name shall deliberately go unmentioned).

Coverage of community news is generally lousy. We have had a raging controversy over sidewalk maintenance (as in who pays for it) and all three newspapers have either missed the story or garbled it. Citizen groups are forming to put the issue on the ballot, some have been ready to recall elected officials, and attorneys have questioned the legality of what the city plans to do.

While the future of planet earth doesn't hinge on the outcome of a sidewalk controversy in suburban St. Louis, I think this is precisely the kind of story that people get passionate about and the media typically miss by a mile, the result being that people think the media are clueless.

I think you're all right -- bloggers are eventually going to fill the vacuum -- and they could end up becoming far more trusted than the traditional media for news that really matters to communities.

Posted by: Glynn Young on May 12, 2005 07:16 AM

I'd welcome some citizen journalism in our market (La Crosse, Wis.) because our staff can't get to all the little town, village and community meetings/events. And I'd view it as new source of nutrition in the journalism food chain. As a daily paper, we get story ideas by feeding off items in the local weeklies in outlying counties. Bigger dailies and electronic media feed off our reports, etc.

As for Mike's report, the part just about the neighborhood meeting was 1,398 words, which would translate into nearly 50 inches of copy in our paper! So yeah, it's deeper than anything we'd print, but there's no way we could fit it in the paper. Blogs free us from length limits, but don't put the information in front of as many local eyes as a daily paper does.

Maybe newspapers can partner with citizen journalists, printing blog highlights and driving visitors to the blogs, where the newspapers could place online ads and share revenue with the bloggers.

Posted by: Reid Magney on May 12, 2005 08:22 AM

Reid, I think you are spot on...the MSM should view bloggers as potential allies, nto as adversaries...the business model could include paper, net, and blogs, Why miss out on that angle? Great extension of the idea. MM

Posted by: Major Mike on May 12, 2005 12:44 PM

All kinds of details would have to be worked out. Editors would be concerned about endorsing content they don't have control over, but they should get over that. For a newspaper to be interested in supporting citizen journalism, the content would have to be original reporting, not just commentary.

On the plus side for newspapers, the bloggers' fees would be based on how many page views and visitors they attract with their content. That said, I'm having a hard time envisioning how someone blogging on an intensely local subject could make very much money doing it. It would almost have to be for bloggers with a lot of time on their hands with some other means of economic support.

Posted by: Reid Magney on May 12, 2005 03:00 PM

I keep wondering about the business model of all this citizen news. Dan Gillmor's excellent book suggests "the tip jar" and other highly doubtful sources of the resources it takes to do actual news.

Bloggers -- it seems -- are mostly people who make their money in some way that gives them ample time to blog. A local newspaper reporter who decided his old dead-tree paper just didn't care about getting deep enough to do really good journalism would starve in about a week if he decided to leap into the blogosphere to do his local news reporting.

How large, in reality, is the audience for a blog about local issues? In a city of 100,000 how many would check every day to see what's new? How could those eyeballs be monetized?

Will citizen journalism -- especially local -- be journalism with no journalists (people paid to collect and disseminate news)?

Posted by: John Meunier on May 12, 2005 04:08 PM

When you consider how much time people will spend waiting to get onto talkback radio, it is possible that grassroots journalism could have a huge audience if people grasp the technology's power quickly. It could die just as quickly too if they don't.

Posted by: genevieve on May 13, 2005 06:20 AM

This is a HUGE issue for metro dailies, particularly those in the 100k to 500k range. Their highly paid consultants keep saying "local local local!" but you don't have to be a rocket surgeon to understand that this is a problem for a metro: My suburb's "great local story" is the next suburb's "why do you publish this trivial stuff?" The equation works great for community papers, but it has diminishing returns for larger ones.

Which doesn't even address the issue of how you cover a suburb. I don't know that anyone has really figured that out, and the last time I went looking for a model all I found were bold initiatives from 1995 that had mercifully been allowed to die around the turn of the century.

It's like you said: our geographic neighborhoods are platforms, not communities. As I asked back in January, "is the Internet local?" Most people think that's a dumb question ("Duh, of course not."), but I'm not so sure. How many of our most important communities today are "virtual?" Where do we go to organize around our mutual passions and interests?

There has been some talk about the proper economic relationship between bloggers and newspapers. I'm starting to think that the best way to compensate bloggers for things that they do for newspapers is to create some kind of revenue-share based on traffic. Bloggers don't need newspapers to blog, but blogging a hyperlocal story, beat or activity on behalf of a newspaper will drive far more traffic to the blog. If you can figure out a way to monetize the value of that exposure to the blogger, then you're halfway to a solution.

Posted by: Daniel Conover on May 13, 2005 12:53 PM

The more we claw back control of news content the more valuable our news becomes. Local newspapers across the globe have become an excellent example of news as an economic delivery device, to meet revenue targets ... print the right stories to attract those likely to be interested in advertising rather than the stories which need and demand to be printed by virtue of their content. Local newspapers are in transition and our mission, at this point in the transition, is to actively engage in creating content for Citizen Me. Our engagement can lead publishers to what we want.

Posted by: Mark Fletcher on May 14, 2005 05:06 PM
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