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.
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.
Each Patch.com site has had the goal of reaching up to 75,000 readers with coverage of sports, crime, local government, and so forth. Learning from other big organizations that tried hyper-local projects and lost hyper-dollars in the process, Patch has planned to keep editorial expenses low and pull down chunks of the $100 billion per year that local businesses spend on advertising. But the announcement last month that AOL was spending $315 million more from its divorce settlement to buy Huffington Post, and would put Arianna Huffington in charge of all its editorial content, may signal Patch changes. Even the hardly non-ideological New York Times fretted: "Given that Ms. Huffington has been straightforward about using a liberal prism on the news, AOL is now handing control of its still considerable traffic and content assets to someone who uses ideology as one of her decision tools in creating news content for consumers."
Of course, left-wing ideology may make for a good match with some journalism schools that are becoming inexpensive sources of talent for hyper-local publications, with students often paid in bylines and experience. The New York Times and New York University put out The Local: East Village, which covers a Manhattan neighborhood. The Arizona Republic publishes with Arizona State University the website AZ Fact Check, which scrutinizes what politicians say. Patch has PatchU, partnerships between local Patch publications and journalism programs including those of Hofstra, Northwestern, Stanford, and Columbia, and the universities of North Carolina, Missouri, Connecticut, Indiana, California, and Southern California.
Professional affiliations, of course, are no guarantee of quality. Last month, with high publicity, some editors and reporters formerly with The Washington Post, CBS, and others launched TBD.com, which on Feb. 3 headlined its lead story, "Pickup artist guide: How to land a date." The story informed readers, "Professional pickup artists teach men they have to figure themselves out before they can become better seducers. . . . One phone number and 99 rejections is better than no phone numbers and no rejections. . . . The important thing is how you feel after the women walk away. If they reject you, they're not ready for you. You're better than them. You're awesome. You need a woman who can handle you."
If 99 of 100 potential readers reject TBD, the editors may be feeding themselves the same line.
-with reporting by Tiffany Owens
Do conservatives have too much media influence? Yes, according to Mark Lloyd, chief diversity officer of the Federal Communications Commission-and emphasizing a version of localism is the way to combat it.
Lloyd, who co-wrote in 2007 a study of "The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio," wants the FCC to reduce conservative influence in talk radio. (To say it more simply, kneecap Rush Limbaugh.) He wants every radio station to be required to reapply for its license every three years. He wants a cap on the number of stations any entity can own. He wants community activists to demand that stations meet their needs and desires. He wants stations that don't bend to lose their licenses or pay fees to support "community broadcasting."
Lloyd's analysis shows that news/talk stations in the top 10 radio markets provide programming that is 76 percent conservative and only 24 percent "progressive." He sees that as a problem. But is it? Let's look at the politics of three other major media:
Major television networks with news programming: ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, FOX, CNN, MSNBC, Comedy Central. One of them is mostly conservative.
Most influential newspapers and magazines: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Time, Newsweek. None of them is conservative in news coverage. (The Journal has a conservative editorial page, so let's count it as half-conservative.)
Most-read internet news sites, according to Alexa: Yahoo, BBC Online, CNN Interactive, The New York Times, Huffington Post. None of them is conservative.
So let's see: In these three media, plus talk radio, conservatives have 12.5 percent, 10 percent, 0 percent, and 76 percent influence. That averages 25 percent conservative influence.
Hmm. Some folks probably do get all their information from talk radio, and some eat all their meals at McDonald's. But we don't require McDonald's to change its menu or pay fees to support local salad bars, because most of us believe that (a) we shouldn't penalize McDonald's for serving what people want, (b) most people don't eat all their meals at McDonald's, and (c) it's a free country. (Isn't it?)
We used to have a suffocating sameness in mass media, so conservative talk radio, despite its excesses, is a breath of fresh airtime. If we do have a lack of political diversity in media, it's because liberalism is still overrepresented, but that just means conservatives should compete more effectively.
Let's not let "localism" be hijacked for political hatchet work.
Many local Christian publications do good work by printing devotional material-but local Christian news publications in the United States are rare, and the internet revolution hasn't done much to improve the situation. In the book Prodigal Press (1988), I pointed to the well-written Twin Cities Christian as a rarity, and 23 years later the same publication, now called Minnesota Christian Chronicle, is still best in show.
MCC is now owned by the Selah Media Group, which also publishes Christian Examiner (both print and digital) in four Southern California editions and one in Seattle/Tacoma. Other local/regional publications include Christian News Northwest in Oregon and southwestern Washington, and Kansas City Metro Voice (which also has a Topeka edition). Christian Family Publications is franchising throughout the Southeast print magazines that "spread positive, Christian information" about family issues.
While national secular media companies are venturing into localism, Christian ones do not seem to be doing so. Many have been barely hanging on in this tough economic environment, so few are able to develop local initiatives even if that were their inclination.