If you're not lucky enough to live in a town with a truly good local newspaper, you're missing out. I'm not just talking about a regional daily, either. No, I'm talking about the little weeklies churned out by hardworking folks who spend more time at town meetings than the average person can bear. No one covers the issues that really matter to your daily life like a local paper. Whether its mil rates, zoning, school redistricting, or your kid's soccer game, the reporters at your town's paper have a freedom to cover the mundane, but often important, stories that actually affect you.
Alas, the local newspaper is a disappearing breed. And if my email inbox -- and the press releases, forwards, and newsletters contained within -- is any indication, hyperlocal news websites are moving in to fill the void. On August 17, AOL Patch announced it was launching its 100th site--this one covers Morristown. On the same day, Examiner.com made its own announcement: "Examiner.com...marked a momentous milestone by celebrating three things: the addition of its 50,000th Examiner, one million daily unique visitors and the roll out of the new Examiner.com site." Then, just a day later, Gannett said its HighSchoolSports.net is launching hyperlocal sports sites across its network of more than 100 local media websites.
I personally heard about a local Chupacabra sighting from one such site (so they obviously have some value). On the flip side, I've also been one of those reporters sitting through Board of Education meetings, watching as townspeople berate board members about redistricting. Frankly, I find it hard to imagine a ragtag bunch of reporters-no matter how professional they may be- getting paid by a faceless, multi-national corporation can form the rapport with a community that a good, privately-owned, community newspaper can.
Even the Patch press release agrees with me about the importance of good community journalism. "All news is essentially local, and the pace at which Patch has grown shows that the demand for meaningful community news and information is alive and well," said Phil Meyer, Professor Emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a member of the Patch Editorial Advisory Board. "...Patch has made a demonstrable leap toward filling a distinct gap in news and information at the hyper-local level."
So I can't help but wonder how sites like Patch will fit into places, like my hometown, that already have good community papers. How much Chupacabra news does one community need? More importantly, how much advertising is there to go around?
Though the town where I worked as a reporter is still Patch-free, I headed over to the Fairfield Patch site, which competes with The Fairfield County Weekly. So far it doesn't seem like many local advertisers-the bread and butter of local newspapers-are jumping on the AOL bandwagon. Instead, national brands (like Pepsi) and movies seem to be taking up the site's real estate. Over on The Fairfield County Weekly's site (which isn't exactly a small, family-owned paper) there are ads from the Connecticut Department of Health, banks, and local arts organizations. Not represented on either site are the small businesses-farm stands, boutique stores, realtors, or restaurants-that litter the Fairfield area.
My casual observations, of course, hardly amount to much. But this whole train of thought reminded me of an article I saw and passed along to EContent's editor, Michelle Manafy, a while back. "Amish Newspaper Succeeds the Old-Fashioned Way" was about a newspaper that received piles of angry letters from its readers after announcing plans to launch a website. You may have guessed from the title that the paper serves an Amish community-where computers are, of course, not welcome-but there are plenty of small town newspapers across the country doing the same thing.
As of February 2010, 40% of American homes did not have broadband access. We spend so much time dealing in the world of "eContent," that we sometimes forget there are millions of people who have never even heard that term. More importantly, perhaps, there are plenty of people, living in quiet towns-especially here in "the land of steady habits" and places like it-who may turn to The New York Times or CNN.com for national or international news but when it comes to the new sidewalks on Main Street, they're perfectly happy to wait for The Weekly Tribune (or some such) to show up in the mailbox.
I agree, Patch will no doubt continue to fill an interesting and important niche in places where the local newspapers have given way to economic pressures-or, perhaps, never existed at all- but I will be interested to see how they negotiate the rocky terrain of competing with robust local news sources. Will print be able to fend off the digital assault in some parts of the hyperlocal arena? Or will the online army keep marching forward?