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The Rise of Localism | Journalism isn't, as recently reported, dying; it's going local

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

Two years ago journalists were crying: Our profession is dead. Now many are watching a local reporting resurgence that will probably be less financially rewarding but more joyful for journalistic entrepreneurs. And, surprisingly, conservative-turned-leftist Arianna Huffington, president of a newly created Huffington Post Media Group with editorial control of all of AOL's editorial content, will have a crucial role in fostering or killing the local press revival.

Let's start with an oozing story: While many local newspapers continue to lay off staffers, new localist competition is emerging. The New Haven Register, still delivered door to door, meet the New Haven Independent, a newsy nonprofit website with revenue from foundation grants, reader donations, and advertising. The Independent proclaims, "Thanks to the Internet, journalists and news-deprived citizens need no longer be hostages to out-of-state media conglomerates. We can reclaim our communities." A hip New York news website, The Gothamist, has brought forth similarly named efforts-The Phillyist, for example-in other large cities.

Heading westward, more efforts-The Ann Arbor Chronicle, for example-are underway in many university towns where graduates who can write like to stay on. But look at Quincy, Ill., a town of 40,000 along the Mississippi River where QuincyNews.org is competing with The Quincy Herald Whig, a 19th-century remnant. The internet site's headline on Feb. 4 was, "Man who attempted to hide drugs in his rectum headed for jury trial." It also had reports on births, deaths, Quincy high-school sports, and state tax breaks for a local manufacturer.

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Similarly, in upstate New York a website, The Batavian, is taking on the long-established-on-paper Batavia Daily News. New Jersey journalists publish Baristanet and their counterparts in Montana and Idaho publish NewWest.net, which has local editions for Bozeman, Missoula, and Boise. Those publications are impressive, as are some others with true local flavor like Indiana's Go! Wayne County, which last month published good ice storm photos.

In Seattle, March 17 will be the two-year anniversary of the final print edition of the Post-Intelligencer, a newspaper previously published on newsprint since 1863. When the P-I became web-only, pronouncements of doom rolled across the United States like a cold front, but two years later the site has 200,000 visitors a day, and other online publications have gained readership. For example, West Seattle Blog covers a neighborhood of about 50,000 people with well-written news-you-can-use such as (on Feb. 4) the redo of a highway off-ramp, details of a stolen car (1990 light blue Honda Accord, 4 door sedan, license plate 099 YEZ), a series of speeding arrests on a road where the speed limit is 30, and the visit of Cinnamon, a six-week-old dairy calf, to a local elementary school.

Those are locally owned efforts, but big national groups are also part of hyper-localism, the movement to cover neighborhoods rather than whole cities, and then reap the advertising rewards. The quality of many of these sites is abysmal. CNN's Outside.in has pages for hundreds of neighborhoods, with particular emphasis on upscale ones like the Upper East Side in New York, Adams Morgan in Washington, and Back Bay in Boston. MSNBC funds Every Block, which may have a few people on a block putting up their photos. Both rely heavily on press releases and should be an embarrassment to their corporate sponsors.

Examiner.com, owned by Philip Anschutz, a Denver Christian entrepreneur, claims to have 55,000 active writers who churn out 3,000 articles each day for websites in more than 200 U.S. markets. The lead story on Examiner.com for Arlington, Va., last month came from the "Arlington Natural Beauty" specialist on moisturizers: "When skin is oily or experiencing an acne breakout, it often feels counter-intuitive to add moisturizer." New York City writers can pick from one of many beats available: Manhattan Nail Polish, Queens Karaoke Bars, New York Doberman Pinschers-on and on the list goes. Writers receive very small amounts based on page views.

Examiner.com seems to have no quality control, and the same lack is evident in publications like HubPages, Squiddo, and Mahalo that pretend to be local but have as their only redeeming social value the ability to attract eyeballs to ads. Articles include "Falling in Love With a Sociopath-and Getting Out of Sociopathic Love." But a promising hyper-local experiment is emerging from AOL, the global internet services and media company that divorced Time Warner in 2009 after a quarrel-filled eight-year marriage. That's because AOL is investing $50 million of the divorce settlement in Patch.com, which now has over 400 news sites.

Patch typically pays a young journalist $40,000 to become the editor of a hyper-local website. Nathan Curby, a 2009 graduate of Patrick Henry College's journalism program, has been Dale City Patch editor since last November: Dale City is not a distinct city but a loosely defined stretch of Washington, D.C., suburb on both sides of Dale Boulevard in northern Virginia. Curby's lead story on Feb. 10 concerned a reduction of parking spaces for commuters at a mall, and he also wrote about local real estate sales and restaurants. He typically pays freelancers $50 for a 400- to 600-word story with photos and in-person interviews. Curby says he's learning to be a flexible yet disciplined multitasker who can switch from interviewing and story-writing to assigning writers and making sure they get paid.

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