What We Need for a Local Reporting Renaissance

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The local news has been a victim of many villains in the 21st century. First, it was Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist and killer of local newspapers' classified advertising revenue. Then, it was Evan Williams, co-founder of Blogger and gatekeeper to the era of seamless self-publishing. Next, came Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook and progenitor of an age in which we can better understand what's happening around us by skimming a newsfeed from our friends. Jack Dorsey dealt the next blow with Twitter, a faster feed of now-news that steered eyeballs towards mobile phones--Evan Williams helped.

A new study ordered by the Federal Communications Commission claims that local reporting is in danger. "In many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting," writes former journalist and author of the study Steven Waldman. "The independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism--going so far as to call it crucial to a healthy democracy--is in some cases at risk at the local level."

Decline or Transformation?

Among the study's many observations and recommendations, the irony of a reporting shortage in the face of "breathtaking media abundance" can't be missed. The study blames the market, noting how cutbacks in newsroom budgets mean fewer reporters which inevitably leaves stories unreported. The "ripple effects" of less information reverberate on a national scale as local television reporters and national news outlets often rely on local reporting as a source. Social media evangelists would be quick to argue that the original reporting is there, hiding in Facebook feeds and buried on Twitter. In the era of abundance somebody is surely saying something about the goings on at town hall or the corrupt local business man. The media just needs better curators, someone to filter the noise and aggregate the useful information. There's not an absence of local reporting, they may argue, there's an evolution in method that the local news industry just needs to figure out.

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Ken Doctor, a blogger for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, explains that that local news and aggregation are currently engaged in canceling each other out: "the aggregators have often laughed ... at those silly people who sink millions into creating local news, or content of any kind, while creators have joked ... that some day those aggregators will have to turn out the lights, when all the content creators have gone bankrupt and out of business."

The Patch.com Model

Enter AOL's bet on a hybrid model, Patch. On Wednesday, Henry Blodget reported that the hyperlocal news network--along with its counterparts at The Huffington Post and AOL--employed more journalists than The New York Times. The model is the brainchild of Tim Armstrong and Jon Brod, who founded the community news platform in 2007 after noticing a lack of local reporting in his home town. Upon Armstrong earning the CEO post at AOL, the company acquired Patch and two years later, The Huffington Post, in an effort to turn America's original digital meeting spot into the future home of local news. The Patch model typically employs one editor who produces some original content but mainly collates news from other sources and community members, also known as citizen journalists. Budgets also allow the editors to pay some freelancers. Blodget says that while he's "very optimistic about the prognosis for Huffington Post," he's skeptical about Patch's ability to provide a return on AOL's annual $120 million investment. A more in-depth report shows Patch struggling to cover its costs with a traditional advertising model and suggests that, if AOL doesn't simply subsidize the project, the business team will need to find a creative solution, quickly.

Then there's the editorial side: can Patch's blend of citizen reports, freelance articles and aggregated content actually break stories? Maybe. Last month's scoop about Chris Christie taking a state police helicopter broke first on one of the most developed Patch sites. However, as Doctor points out, Armstrong plans to expand Patch from its current 800 sites in 22 states to well over 1,000 nationwide. Unless they figure out the business model--an impossible task for a too-hasty management team, says one Patch employee--editors' freelancing budgets will be slashed and the local sites would be back to depending on aggregated news from a decreasing number of sources. Citizen journalists, after all, are great for pictures and videos, (look at the successful growth of CNN's user-generated site iReport) but for true reporting, citizen journalists thrive best under the management of professional reporters. According to the Poynter Institute, "It's this vision of citizen journalism complementing and adding to professional journalism that is so compelling."

Two More Ideas

At the end of the day, hard-nosed reporting, especially local reporting, is hard work, despite the presence of Blogger, Facebook and Twitter in connecting people and disseminating information. According to The New York Times's preview, the FCC report recommends government help, "making actual in-the-field reporting a part of the curriculum at journalism schools, steering more government advertising money toward local instead of national media and changing the tax code to encourage donations to nonprofit media organizations."

Another idea is for aspiring journalists to redirect their dreams away from New York City's saturated mediasphere and towards local papers where they can make a difference and be small-town heroes. We'll turn to Gawker's Hamilton Nolan for a rallying cry. We can't really tell how sarcastic Hamilton is being, but it's a good cry either way.

With a little gumption, you can quite easily become the most important media figure in Standard Small Town, USA, at the age of 22. In New York, you will never be important (sorry). You'll also be doing the fine small town folks an actual public service by covering the city council meetings and poking into the misdeeds of all the assholes on the school board or whatever. You'll be able to write stories that have a concrete impact that you'd never achieve by recapping TV shows or whatever awful thing you'll end up doing when you come to NYC with journalistic aspirations. And when the profit model for online local news finally gets itself together, you'll be right there, already entrenched, with your own tiny little media empire.

Good luck. We'll be cheering you on, from New York.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.