Tuesday, October 6, 2009


As is the case with most crises, a viable solution isn't in some far (or even near) future position, waiting to descend and make everything better, but instead it's been there all along, under the radar, slowly building its momentum until the lumbering big guys notice it all.

Newsweek noticed it this week: The phenomenon of hyperlocal bloggers filling the void where traditional media (read newspapers) are asleep at the switch. Here are a few telling excerpts from Newsweek's story:
Until recently, a fender bender or a gas leak in Millburn, N.J., was treated like the minor event that it is. Then Jennifer Connic arrived in town. Connic, 32, is the editor of a Web site called Millburn.Patch.com, part of a chain of local sites called Patch.com, and since February she's been covering mundane events in this suburban town of 20,000 residents with a zeal most journalists re-serve for a big scoop. Connic shows up at so many auto accidents that for a time Millburn Fire Chief Michael Roberts began going too, just so he could deal with Connic's questions while his firefighters worked. At Millburn town hall, town administrator Timothy Gordon often spends part of his week alerting the Millburn Township Committee about what news Connic is likely to break next—so they hear it from him, not from her blog. For decades the locals got their news from a sleepy weekly newspaper, but now, with Connic, rival bloggers, and the "citizen journalists" they recruit walking the Millburn beat 24/7, Gordon sometimes has trouble staying abreast of town controversies. "They can come across problems before [town officials] know about them," Gordon says.
What counts here is not journalistic training, it's journalistic zeal. And, frankly, the ability to get away from the ease of merely spouting opinion on a blog but actually using a blog to convey factual, honest information to your readers. You won't find that much here because, even though I have a bachelors degree in journalism, I learned years ago that I do not posesss the zeal that is called for in a true community/citizen journalist. I'm much happier in the wooly world of fiction, thank you very much. But I am glad there are folks out there who are using the Internet for this kind of news purveyance, because it'll show the big guys -- end even the little guys -- something about journalism education and journalism itself.

What will it show? First, I think, it'll get us back to the era when a reporter didn't necessarily need a four-year degree. I'm not entirely sure that's a requisite now, but I can say this: The more I look back on the four-year degree I earned in journalism, the more I have to wonder why in that span of time nobody really talked about finding and maintaining that zeal. I suppose the assumption was that if a person wanted to be a journalist, that zeal was inborn, already there, or would be learned on the job. I can tell you that my journalism education left way too much to be learned on the job -- or those on the job frmo whom I was to learn these things were too busy doing something else to bother with an upstart like me, assuming, as I've already mentioned, that the zeal was there already. I'm not saying all journalists have had the zeal beaten out of them; I'm just saying it wasn't there in large amounts for me.

But this isn't about me, fortunately, because if it were left up to me, this is what we'd be hearing:
At times Gordon longs for the days when the weekly newspaper, The Item, was Millburn's sole watchdog. "It was slower, and [its] reporters mostly stayed in their office," he says. So Gordon is adapting. When the town's phone system went down recently, he relied on Patch to explain why town hall couldn't be contacted.
So I'll leave the hyperlocal reporting to those who have the zeal to do it. I don't feel bad about my non-participation. Given my butt-first exit from journalism in 2005, I'm not anxious to re-enter that world, and if there are those who want to go into that world through a blog, so be it. I'll support them, as long as they're newsy and not heavy on the opinion. And if they can keep troll posters under control, which is always a headache. And, of course, I'll continue my nonsensical ramblings here, writing for my tiny audience and otehrwise not being bothered that I do not possess the zeal that others engender.

What's interesting -- and what should be making newspapers shriek about this -- is that these people aren't necessarily doing all of this work for free. Newsweek continues:
Web-news guru Jeff Jarvis, director of the interactive-journalism program at the City University of New York, has done an extensive study of hyper-local economics, and he's optimistic. "The most startling and hopeful number I have found is this: some hyper-local bloggers, serving markets of about 50,000, are bringing in up to $200,000 a year in advertising," he says. That's small beans to big media companies, but if an operation like AOL's Patch can link together a network of $200,000-a-year sites each run by a single reporter, and then amortize big expenses (like technology and ad sales) across multiple sites, you could start to see decent profits. The low overhead is crucial: not only are startups like Patch using less costly labor, but they also believe readership and revenue will grow as networks of hyperlocal blogs link to each other, and as they become adept at persuading small businesses that never advertised in newspapers to give online advertising a shot—a key to Patch's strategy.
As a traditional newspaper reporter, I, of course, would freak if I'd been assigned as a single writer to cover an area of 50,000 inhabitants. That, of course, is one of the reasons I'm not in journalism any more. This is where the zeal enters in and, hopefully, where megaturds -- Dave Barry's phrase for stories that consume much of a reporter's time but are rarely read by readers -- are nonexistent. These bloggers have a chance to connect intimately with their readers, basically sending them the message: I'm doing this for you. What do you want to read here? If hyperlocal bloggers can match their zeal with the ability to produce what local readers want, there's the golden opportunity.

Part of me suspects that Newsweek's story, and Jarvis' numbers, are a bit Pollyanna, however. While zeal is commendable for reporters, I have to wonder how much that zeal will bleed into the world of soliciting these $200,000-a-year advertisers, and how much time that will take out of a blogger's time for actual reporting. A one-man show sounds appealing, especially for an individual with the zeal for showing up and asking annoying questions at accidents, city council meetings and the like. But the one-man show also implies running the advertising and business end of things. Zeal can only go so far.

Update October 7: There's a good discussion of hyperlocal journalism here. (Look for "Social Media and Journalism, there is no option to link directly to the post, oddly enough.) Doug Fisher here brings out a good point that hyper-local news has to be nurtured, and that such nurturing is likely to be more successful in areas with bigger populations.

Another Update: The "Reflections of a Newsosaur" blog has a nice little tale on the failure of a handful of Denver-based net papers, offering a demonstration of how just transplanting what newspaper journalism has done on print to the web just doesn't work as a business model. More stuff here, including experiments the failed Rocky Mountain News did with hyperlocal reporting.

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