Sunday, June 22, 2008

Of hyper-local journalism and future journalists

The Carnival of Journalism question for this month is a deceptively simple, yet deviously complex nut. Thanks a bunch to June's host, Andy Dickinson, for posting it (it gives me an excuse to get a Scotch, several, perhaps).

Let's break this in two: 1) is there value to be had in hyper-local journalism, if so what is it and who will do it and 2) what about that journalist of the future, what will he or she be like?

As to the first, I confess, I don't know. I do know -- or at least think pretty strongly -- that any news outlet focused solely on geographic community in the digital age is limiting its growth prospects, if not flirting with suicide. Every geographic community has dozens of sub-communities, many spanning geographic boundaries, and to which the participants may be more closely tied. To ignore those as sources of news (and, as important, revenue) is foolish.

Yet, I still maintain geographic ties and have a need for geographic-based information. I want to know about changes in my trash pickup; I need to know about road closings and similar information; I'm interested in the latest secret land deal the local school district has made for what it portends for growth, my home value and my taxes; I like to hear about the neighbor's children in sports; and I want to know what the county council is doing to my tax rate. Some of that information is hyper-local, but some is, literally, "across the dam" 10 miles away. I need an entity with some sense of geographic community to understand the relative importance of some of those things and bring them to my attention.

The full-service newsroom (some will use the term newspaper, but I prefer not to confound the issue) used to be the agency for that and, as it turns out, not a very good one past a certain size (though I'm not sure exactly what the point is where things start to break down and the newsroom loses its sense of community). Some atomization is occurring. However, I don't see it going as far as some commentators do because.
  • I don't think our readers/users/viewers have all that time or desire to click around cyberspace. Some form of aggregation, though not necessarily as we know it now, is likely. It may well be an amalgam of a feed site with a recommendation engine with some original reporting. It certainly will have to have multiple layers of customization.
  • News aggregators -- we now call them newspapers and broadcasters -- serve a legal/social function as well. As I've written before, they centralize liability, a critical socio-legal function in modern and post-modern society. Eventually, the legal system may evolve (warning, fellow carnivalistas, that may be next month's question when I play host), but currently it is set up to work on the idea of consolidated liability (read, deep pockets).
  • In return, the aggregator provides the journalists who belong to it a legal umbrella.
    This is not insignificant. We really have not started plumbing the depths to which the legal system may expose individual digital journalists. (I wonder how many fellow carnival members carry professional liability/defamation insurance.) Just the discussions over AP's broadside at the Drudge Retort should begin to suggest the ramifications.
  • The aggregator also provides legal muscle. We may develop some specialized investigative reporting operations, but the very nature of those is likely to be on a regional, national or international scale. But who is willing to go to court to challenge the local school board when it tries to hide its actions by funneling them through its law firm? Yes, perhaps we'll see the development of some kind of foundation support and nonprofit action groups, but by and large it takes some concentration of economic resources to be able to mount an effective legal challenge.
We have found through Hartsville Today, and my colleagues at Missouri have noted something similar through their efforts, that all the rhetoric about how all this would open up democracy and a horde of folks would start scrutinizing the school board, well, it just generally ain't so. Oh, yes, we get many good "stories" on HVTD, important ones, ones the newspaper wouldn't necessarily get to. But one thing you definitely see missing is that "dedicated" hyper-local journalist spending hours sitting through city council or the school board or sifting through the records and asking the really challenging questions. That's big-J "journalism," and in the hundreds of conversations I've had in relation to HVTD and other sites, people still generally expect "us" to do it (even using the term "journalism" to distinguish it from what they see themselves doing).

So, where am I going with this? Well:
  1. I think hyper-local journalism has value and is an integral part of our future, but
    1. It will be uneven across communities
    2. It requires evangelists to make it work well
    3. It is never a "build it and they will come" proposition
  2. In most cases it will benefit from some kind of aggregation and other related services
  3. It will have to recognize geographic as well as social and ethnographic communities
  4. Realizing any value from it will require aggregating small streams of revenue into larger pools. This is not to say it must be done for revenue, for there will be dedicated individuals for whom it will be a calling. They may be of independent means, find foundation funding or scrape out just enough revenue to cover their marginal costs.
  5. Any full-service newsroom that does not 1) start figuring out what its community's communities are, 2) learn to tap into those communities and 3) set up its digital assets so that members of those communities are valuable parts of the journalism (be it contributing, ranking, whatever) should start setting up plans to close.
In all this, I rather like Dave Lee's thoughts on a NewsHub. I don't think he's gotten to it all, yet, because the legal and economic realities (psychological ones, too, I can tell you having been an AP news editor and having had to deal with sharing issues) are vastly more complicated. I also think Wendy Withers has hit on one of the verities -- The problem with digital reporting on the web is newspapers still don’t know what’s going to work. And, when they try to come up with ways to involve readers in the process, they don’t go out of their way to really understand their readers; they look to see what others are doing and then emulate it. Even worse, some newsrooms still think of their readers as “those cute little readers who have to be saved by their base desire to read stories about puppies and celebrities.”

She's also spot on in noting that digital stories require more: If you’re going to stick to local stories, make sure they’re local stories people want to read. Keep sports coverage, but the old “get in, get out, get a couple of quotes and pictures” style of reporting isn’t going to cut it any more. This is true with all stories. One of the biggest problems with modern journalism is stories are stripped away until there are no compelling elements. Find them. Write them. Add your own style and flair, because the old school journalism we’ve been told to stick by is failing.

A Jack Lail has some excellent thoughts on how to make local sites work.

Now, as for No. 2 -- that future journalist. That's actually the easy one. That good journalist in 2013 is going to be a lot like the good journalist of today and a lot like the good journalist of 1913. Journalism itself changes little. It remains one of the true cottage industries, one-on-one piecework, my relationship to my source, my desire to find out things and to tell you about them, and maybe a little outrage or desire to change the world mixed in. (The "my" is the universal "my" -- rest assured I am not saying I am a good journalist.)

We seem to have forgotten that in this modern age. Yes, it may take a village to put out a newspaper or a Web site (though, as shown time and time again as tools improve, that is less and less so). But that comes after the journalism. Never confuse presentation with journalism.

I fear we have done that - and in the process confounded our young journalists, too. I run a small survey in my classes and once again this year, "finding stuff out and telling people about it" was one of the last reasons any of my students chose journalism, even though it should be one of the first. "I like to write," "I'm good with people," "I like the excitement" and similar things all get the bulk of the votes. But all the writing, being good with people and getting excited doesn't mean squat if you don't have the information in your notebook - digital or otherwise.

Yes, our new-age reporter will have to learn how to use various digital assets (many of which probably don't exist yet), and he or she will certainly need a different mindset, one that recognizes the journalist as just one node in much larger intersecting communities. (But then again, didn't we have to learn to use the telegraph, and phones, and faxes, etc.) But I also think that great journalists of 2013 will look back and read the work of Ida Tarbell or Lincoln Steffens and smile a little. They'll recognize a lot of what they are doing in the future in what great journalists have done in the past.

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At 7/15/08, 8:41 AM, Anonymous Susan Crowell said...

Bravo! Journalistic foundations of accuracy, objectivity, storytelling will never go out of style, no matter what the medium. Recognize the history, develop the skills, but move on. I'm an old print person. I listen to the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the demise of newspapers. And yet I'm more excited than ever about the future of my profession. I want to update my skills, learn more about multimedia and the Web. Change fast, fail fast.

At 3/22/10, 11:59 AM, Blogger Jestocke said...

Change is going to happen whether we like it or not. Basic skills should always be used no matter where you're writing. It is important to keep up with changes to make it in this world because everything does change. And one thing needed always is common sense. Too bad colleges can't teach students classes on common sense. A lot of students don't have any and it's a shame.


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