Jul 1 2009

Local Heroes

A new media model may be right around the corner—literally

OWS first amendment savetheinternetFirst came the waves of consolidation that swallowed up independent newspapers across the country. Now, as more newsrooms shrink and shutter in the Internet age, the local daily paper may be verging on extinction. But in many communities, a new tide of experimental Web-based ventures is moving to fill in the holes left by declining corporate media.

These emerging “hyperlocal” models—ranging from slick news aggregators to more traditional pavement-pounding reporting—focus on a certain geographic area and draw from an array of local sources, like reader announcements, government records and Twitter. Though individual sites aim to capture the peculiarities of the neighborhoods they cover, they all strive to collapse traditional boundaries: Instantaneous output trumps the morning edition, and streams of content, often piped in directly from users, buck the conventional top-down model of corporate newspapers.

While the blogosphere and citizen reporting have eroded the stature and market share of traditional print-based outlets, critics have lamented the loss of “professionalism” in media. But “peer-driven” hyperlocal media could imbue the news with a new kind of vigor—combining the energy of social networking with Web mechanics that deliver information without relying exclusively on professionals to triage it. The next-generation formats vary in their dependence on human labor: At one extreme are automatic newsgathering projects; then there are print media transplants trying to recreate the conventional reporting model online, while others build their product on user-generated content with minimal editing.

EveryBlock.com, now operating in 15 cities, including New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C., brands itself as the ultra-personal newsfeed. Supported by a Knight News Challenge grant, the site’s geeky brand of voyeurism presents end-users with a bird’s-eye composite of their surroundings. Keying in a zip code brings up breaking news from other outlets, blog gossip, Flickr photos and even local liquor license applications. Interactive maps pinpoint crime scenes and recommend restaurants.

Adrian Holovaty, founder of the site, describes the site’s perspective as “microlocal”—providing a level of detail that mainstream papers cannot. The site does not publish original articles or aspire to replace ordinary newspapers (which provide a substantial chunk of the site’s content). Rather, it processes and compresses public information into digestible packages for people curious about their communities.

Holovaty says the operation’s small staff and “culture and mindset” distinguish it from old school outlets, since his team is “not weighed down with…legacy thinking.” In response to criticism from print media traditionalists, he said, “Generally speaking, I think media people should stop complaining and start building new products and services that are useful to people.”

A like-minded but less automated entrepreneurial venture, Patch.com, has seeded a network of hyperlocal sites in several towns throughout New Jersey. At each site, an editor compiles public announcements, user-uploaded video and images, and local commentary, complemented by brief original news stories.

Patch publisher Warren Webster said the sites cater to medium-sized towns of 20,000 to 50,000 people. “By covering such a small area, we are able to focus 100 percent on a specific community, digging deeper than other media in the region,” he said. “We’re already finding that traditional media outlets are linking to our stories in many cases.”

In Davidson, N.C., former print journalist David Boraks takes a more organic approach, bridging bread-and-butter community journalism with new media at DavidsonNews.net. His hometown has no local daily, and as the regional metro paper has slashed its staff, everyday coverage of suburban towns like his has dwindled.

Boraks runs a tight ship, with open-source blog software and a small team of assistants. He does most of the reporting himself, covering town hall meetings, neighborhood crimes, and economic growth and development issues. Yet despite the stress of juggling multiple editorial duties, he has no designs to automate his site like EveryBlock does.

When it comes to community news, he said, “No matter how good your programming is and your algorithm and all of that, it can’t be a substitute for a human being thinking about what’s newsworthy and what needs to be covered, and going out and getting it.”

Some media observers see peer-driven local news as a response to the failures of traditional journalism.

“The American populace are very savvy to the fact that the news is no longer a critical analysis tool,” said Sascha Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative. “It’s no longer a system of checks and balances, and it’s no longer living up to the responsibilities that were given to it.” Meinrath thinks the time is ripe to “reprofessionalize” the media by placing the news consumer before the bottom line—and maybe in the headline and byline, too.

“Technologies have moved to a point whereby people are in a position to demand better,” he said. “So if you, my local newspaper, won’t cover what I want to see covered, I can open the virtual equivalent of my own newspaper.”

It’s unclear whether ventures like DavidsonNews can revamp the newsroom to be sustainable in the Digital Age. Boraks founded the site in 2006 and has yet to earn a steady salary, though he has generated basic revenue from local donor subscriptions and business advertising. Even larger Web-based news organizations, such as the prominent investigative outlet ProPublica, currently depend on philanthropic funding.

More user-driven sites face similar long-term challenges. When its Knight grant runs out, EveryBlock will have to explore other potential revenue streams, including advertisements. Patch’s business model, which features different forms of web-based advertising, is still developing as the company expands. But Webster predicts every site should eventually become “stand-alone profitable.”

At the same time, new technologies continue to eat away at the one-to-many format of corporate journalism. Meinrath said the next generation of publications “will arise out of this tension that we’re seeing right now between peer-to-peer producers and disseminators of information, and those who want to maintain this command-and-control broadcast model.”

Alan Mutter, a former journalist and cable industry executive who now runs the blog Reflections of a Newsosaur, sees no replacement on the digital horizon for the conventional paper, with its structured divisions and financial clout. To carve out a new niche, Mutter said, newspapers should refocus resources on investigative and long-form reporting, rather than “trying to be a spot news media; that has to be yielded to the electronic media.”

A media landscape flooded with hyperlocalism, citizen reporters and other Web-based experiments, he added, just underscores the role of journalists as a professional compass. Since “we have more information coming at us, from more places, incessantly, all the time,” he said, “we need people who we trust and rely on to gather the information, to check the facts, provide context, provide interpretation, to tell us what’s important.”

In the end, the takeaway is that no single model will come to dominate the new media marketplace—and that’s the point. Ellen Hume, research director at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media, predicts the evolution of community journalism will hinge not so much on format as on pluralism and flexibility.

“We are better off with both professional and citizen media,” she said, “than we ever could be with just one or the other.”

Michelle Chen is a freelance writer based in New York City. She is a proud refugee of both the decline of the newspaper industry and the chaos of online media.