For/against hyperlocal journalism

Posted on February 4, 2008 
Filed Under Journalism

Will Bunch on “Forgetting Why Reporters Choose the Work They Do” asks:

‘Will journalists cover local news for life, with no chance of parole?’

“…At each conference the participants fixate on the same point: With the Internet in play, a small group of players—The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC—will dominate the big stories on the world stage and in our nation’s capital.

For the rest of us, journalism will die if it does not become more local, or even something called “hyperlocal.” The theory goes like this: readers seeking out world or national news on the Web won’t bother with local sites or their city’s daily newspaper when they can go directly to global sites on the Internet. What is missing—and what can’t offer—is intensive reporting of local news about what’s happening, for example, in Philadelphia’s schools or with Spokane’s city council or with the eight-car pileup that just took place on a heavily traveled commuter highway.

In more sprawling, faceless exurban communities, especially in the Sunbelt, the move is for hyperlocal reporting, akin to what a leading pioneer in the field—Kate Marymont, executive editor of The News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida—acknowledged can be “cat stuck in a tree” journalism at times. This kind of reporting—short bursts of neighborhood-type stories, frequently updated—is being carried out by a new breed known as “mojos,” young, not exorbitantly paid reporters who file words and pictures and sound more often than not from their car using a laptop and mobile phone. With its promised quickness and reduced cost, it resembles more a pizza delivery strategy than the shoe-leather model of reporting we grew up with.

To say that I have mixed feelings about this movement to save the newspaper industry would be an understatement, even though the goal here is to save my ever-endangered job. Intellectually, I agree fully that the only thing that makes sense in the Internet age for a newspaper like The Philadelphia Daily News is to cover the living daylights out of new streetlights for the Platt Bridge or applications to open neighborhood charter schools.

On an emotional level, I’m going on 49 years old, and I have a lot of friends around my age who have survived the surge in newsroom layoffs and are still working in an ink-stained newsroom somewhere. Not one of us wanted to be covering local news at our age (or, for that matter, at any age.)

…There’s a very real problem here, a serious disconnect. For the past couple of years, a number of change-minded journalists, academics and engaged citizens have been discussing a lot of great ideas for saving the news business: Teaching reporters how to wield video cameras on assignment, to file breaking news for the Web, to use a blog to cover a local beat like mass transit, or work as moderators with engaged citizen journalists.

What’s almost never mentioned in these discussions is the human factor. After all, one of the underlying tenets of saving newspapers is supposed to be rescuing the livelihood of working journalists. But do the rank-and-file of most metro newspapers in 2007, people in their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, actually want to do these things—cover local news for life, with no chance of parole?

Some, perhaps. Most, no. Definitely not me.”


In Newspapers’ Niche: Dig Deeply Into Local Matters, Brett J. Blackledge argues for hyperlocal journalism: “…the purpose of local reporting is to cover what others can’t, won’t or haven’t.”

“…That is the value of that type of local, intense reporting. I tried to make that point recently at a meeting in Washington, D.C., at a gathering of newspaper editors from across the country. But my message couldn’t penetrate the discussions among them about the cuts in staff, the drops in circulation, the loss of revenue at their papers. How can you afford this type of reporting? My response is, how can you afford not to do it?

First, I reminded them, it’s what readers expect and love. I’ve been a reporter for 22 years and, at no point, with no other story, have I received more reader feedback. It was really accidental, but seemingly brilliant, the way we ultimately published the articles in the two-year college series. We had every intent to package related articles in a traditional Sunday presentation, complete with photographs, graphics, pullout boxes, the works. But erupting daily news events, resulting from our initial articles and efforts by the college system’s leadership to sabotage some of our enterprise, meant we had to publish material as fast as we could to stay ahead of our own story. Readers, however, gave us far more credit, thinking we intentionally structured our work as an ongoing serial for release on a Tuesday, a Thursday, maybe a Monday, just to keep them guessing. “It’s like a novel,” one reader told me. “I can’t wait to pick up the paper the next day to see what’s coming.”

Of course, I played along. I didn’t explain how we intended to make the sausage. I just liked the fact they enjoyed it. But isn’t this proof that readers devour this type of material? Each article is pretty much a traditional news story, not hard to get your head around as a reader. But each is rich with news, details, the type of things that people call their friends about, wondering if they’ve seen the latest bit. Our genuine interest to do our journalism job better turned out to be just what the reader wanted, and it made us relevant, a must-read. How can we not afford to do this?

The second message I tried to convey was this: Isn’t this what we’re supposed to do as newspapers? Something about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, right? Newspapers have one place among the increasingly crowding media as the ever-vigilant watchdog, and it’s what we do best for local audiences. Broadcasters can’t do it; there’s no video. And radio can’t do it; there’s no time. Bloggers won’t do it; there’s no agenda. And national media can’t do it; there’s no interest.

That leaves us, with a very significant niche. We continued reporting and writing this story this year. Truth is the Pulitzer folks gave me a $10,000 check, but they also gave me the argument to make to my bosses about why this matters. We can’t drop this, as we often have to do, because we believe the next bright, shiny light is where we should head…”



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