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