The 20th-century notion of a journalist acting as a professional surrogate for his or her readers and helping them understand the nature of a story is, well, so last century. Today, audiences want to be involved in the process. That means that they want to select the news source and maybe even help in the production of a story (or at least participate
in a conversation about it).
A few years ago, the idea of citizen journalism—in which citizens not only consume the news, they help produce the news—was born. As Web 2.0 tools have developed, audiences have grown to expect—even demand—to be involved. While the web provides greater access to the world at large, it turns out that many of us want the media to address what’s happening close to home, and we not only want to see the news, we want to be the news. While many new businesses have developed around this idea, traditional media has had little choice but to jump on the bandwagon. The results have been mixed, but companies new and old are finding ways to get the community involved to both produce content and help generate new sources of revenue.
All Politics is Local
Many years ago, Thomas P. "Tip" O’Neil, a longtime congressman from Massachusetts who served as Speaker of the House in the 1980s, said, "All politics is local." To a large extent, the same could be said of the news. Despite an increasingly global marketplace, people remain keenly interested in what’s going on in their part of the world. As media consolidation results in newspapers and broadcast outlets increasingly becoming a part of large corporate chains, it becomes less cost-effective for them to cover the news that really matters most to people. Into the breach have stormed bloggers, regular people who can keep fingers on the pulse of their local neighborhoods, schools, and issues around the block—arguably better than any journalist working a local beat.
Steve Johnson, who runs a hyperlocal news aggregation site called outside.in, thinks there is something valuable about the notion of monitoring your immediate neighborhood. "It came out of this realization that I had. I noticed every morning as I browsed around and hit these various blogs, that I was compulsively checking local Brooklyn [N.Y.] blogs where I live … and they were covering a part of my neighborhood and community that I wasn’t getting from The New York Times or other traditional media." He points out that type of news, which didn’t make it into traditional media outlets, was extremely interesting to him on a personal level but not necessarily to the world at large. "Things that happen within 10 blocks are interesting to us even if they aren’t interesting on the other side of the town," Johnson says.
Johnson believed that it was particularly difficult to find hyperlocal news because search engines aren’t organized geographically. That’s why he created a news aggregation site, which originally covered his Brooklyn area, but has since grown to include 4,000 local bloggers covering 55 cities (and counting) around the country, and it’s all organized around Google Maps technology. What’s more, Johnson thinks the bloggers have an authority that journalists usually couldn’t provide on these subjects. He says, "When you want to know the deal with the science program for the 7th grade, you don’t ask the local education reporter at the newspaper, you ask parents whose kids were in the program last year. When you get down to this level, you get a lot of local experts," he says, and the concept of having gone to journalism school or having special training fades away.
Christopher Grotke and Lisa LePage have been running the community journalism site iBrattleboro.com since 2003, which, Grotke says, makes his site one of the gray ladies of community journalism. LePage says that it’s not only about being part of a local community, it’s the local community within the context of the world at large. "Really local stuff is of vital interest to the people who live right there. If you cover hyperlocal and you are doing it because you really care about hyperlocal news, it’s a great way to get more awareness [of local issues], but we also really see ourselves as a small town, in the midst of a county, in the midst of a tri-state mini region, in the midst of the northern states." She adds, "We see ourselves in successive waves and that’s where our sphere of influence comes."