Hyperlocal journalism persists as the next big thing in media, if only investors could grok the business model. Much ink has been spilt over how — or even if — hyperlocal journalism could be as viable in the real world as people fantasize it to be in Candyland.
Although I have my doubts about the future of hyperlocal — I remain skeptical that a largely non-funded collective of writers can pull of the right balance of news and commentary frequently enough to make a particular franchise a go-to source for ordinary readers in an already crowded market — I think the smart money rests with the “solo aggregator” model. In other words: One person in a community, probably a freelancer trying to build demand for an ad-supported website, takes it upon himself to pull together already published or available information to build a meta-index relevant to the target market. This would tie into local advertising to generate a modest income stream. From there, perhaps some degree of local or specialized reporting could follow. But in the end, it’s one person with a journalism background who’s functioning as something of a solo-practice beat reporter. To avoid reader turn-off related to an unhealthy signal-to-noise ratio within the content channel, odds are that the franchise would have a very specific focus. “Jack of all trades” sites lose appeal when 80 percent of the content is irrelevant to any individual reader. Why bother when most of the content isn’t germane to her interests?
It’s worth noting that the same concept applies to the “news analysis” model: A blogger could mix news and commentary across a particular type of information, targeted to a local or regional market. Indeed, there have been some bloggers in West Michigan who focus on politics and environmentalism and have made money and earned high-profile jobs because of their effort. The point, though, is that their work product remained focused and largely professional given the audience and context.
Irrespective of the model, though, the biggest problem for hyperlocal rests in the relative skill mix of the reporters and the willingness of editors to curate content. Too many sites (e.g., my own hometown’s Rapidian) mean well but the content overwhelming represents the subjects that the reporters themselves find interesting. And it seems that those willing to write hyperlocal fall along a remarkably consistent ideological paradigm. Nothing significant about city commission politics, nothing about religion, nothing about sports other than biking – but plenty about organic farmers markets, art shows and concerts. Lots of sympathetic coverage of “Occupy Grand Rapids” protests. This observation isn’t intended to diminish the collective efforts of the Rapidian, but it does point to the fundamental flaw in the idea of citizen journalism. To wit: It needs a kick-ass editor who enforces quality and diversity of content across the entire enterprise. Otherwise you get the herd of independent voices all saying the same thing and degenerating into “alternative news” in every not-so-happy sense of the term.
I think the situation would be different, though, if “citizen journalists” had adequate preparation for the rigors of reporting. When I worked at the Western Herald, first as opinion editor then as copy chief and finally as editor in chief, the most pressing duty of every section editor was training. You hire your writers, columnists and photographers — then you teach them the tools of the trade. As an independent daily, funded solely through ad revenue, we didn’t have the luxury of operating in a non-competitive environment. Our competition was the Kalamazoo Gazette, and despite being out-funded and outclassed we occasionally scooped them because of the diligence of our reporters and editors in building relationships within the community in the beats we valued most. But the training had to come first. And, in fact, it often required us to un-train the folks from the journalism program, who were taught theory that had little relation to the actual practice of journalism.
The lessons we tried to impart to our staff at the Herald remain powerfully relevant to citizen journalists across the fruited plain:
- Keep the tools of the trade handy. Carry a notepad, camera, tape recorder, whatever. Just be able to cover the story if you stumble upon it (it happens). Newer smart phones work in a pinch. And carry business cards or a press pass — it lends considerable legitimacy if you stumble on breaking news. As does a membership in SPJ or EFA.
- Find the right angle. Don’t just recite facts. Avoid the temptation to write sympathetically to every source you encounter. Always look for the “other side of the story” and give the other side due space.
- Keep meticulous notes and document quotes religiously, but never give a source the right of prior review.
- Get to know your beat. If you’re covering the city commission, it pays to research the commission’s history, structure and prior meeting minutes. Know who’s who before you walk into the chamber for the first time. Subscribe to press release distribution lists, follow Twitter streams, whatever. Know what’s going on by monitoring what comes over the transom.
- Cultivate resources. Professional journalists fetishize objective detachment, but the truth is, networking and relationship building are what make a beat reporter effective. Hyperlocal journalists tend to act as transcriptionists instead of reporters — they get a subject or a topic and then “report” on it, believing that what they’re told is fundamentally true. Piercing questions seem far and few between, and in some instances, the assignment editor even gives the slant and the reporter merely needs to fill in the blanks. Not effective.
- Learn how to write a compelling news story. Master the plain old boring inverted pyramid before trying more clever ledes — too much hyperlocal reads like the byproduct of a high-school journalism assignment, and it doesn’t need to be that way. In a sense, it’s the editors who bear responsibility for ensuring that stories are structured appropriately and the major questions receive a reasonable answer. And its the editors who need to ensure that hard news is reported as hard news, not as a review or analysis or navel-gazing reflection.
- Look for the hidden story. Don’t just report on what comes in through the fax machine or email account. In communities with a large journalism enterprise, the small things get overlooked. The promise of hyperlocal is that they’ll cover what “big media” won’t. But in truth, big media still influences the hyperlocal budget. Hyperlocal at its best finds the quirky and offbeat, and tells it in a lush narrative style. In particular, hyperlocal can work a thematic series and invest in a rich telling of important but not immediate stories.
- Be willing to invest in dead ends. News hounds fail nine times for every one golden nugget they uncover. Dig. Run statistics. File FOIA requests. Interview the secretary instead of the department chief. Many times, nothing will come of it but wasted time. The rare instances a real, valuable story comes along because of the effort makes the failures worthwhile.
I want hyperlocal to work. I like the idea of community news. I like the prospect of my neighbors forming a collective of reporters who will advance the public good through more informed discourse.
Right now, there’s room for improvement. Lets hope the boots on the ground ramp up their game, lest the whole model be discredited in the long run.