There's been an interesting experiment in online journalism going on in the New York City suburbs.
One of the Google executives who is concerned about the death of the news media is using his personal fortune to try to start up an online news site in several New Jersey communities that are part of the New York City metropolitan area. He's doing what community newspapers have always regarded as their bread and butter -- covering school boards, city councils, crime, and various community affairs. That's nothing new in small town America; covering those things are the main reason why people buy local newspapers. But it's a niche that has been virtually abandoned by the major metropolitan newspapers as their staffs have been slashed and news content cut to the bare bones, and it's part of why their readers are abandoning the larger newspapers even faster than small newspapers.
The Google executive, Tim Armstrong, is described this way: "Tim believes that Patch should be in every community in America, and wants Patch in his town. He wants to read local news stories done by journalists, make sure that local government is transparent and accountable, see all the ways he can give back to his community, and have his town be as interesting and alive online as it is offline. Tim is also a believer in American ingenuity and knows that products like Patch will help deliver a commercially viable way for communities to support the important work of local journalists, institutions, governments, and businesses."
Now the New York Times has decided to get involved. There's a debate on that here, at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard: Google exec, NYT go hyper-local http://www.niemanlab.org/2009/03/google-exec-nyt-go-hyper-local/
And here:The New York Times Battles a Googler for New Jerseyhttp://gawker.com/5162106/the-new-york-times-battles-a-googler-for-new-jersey#viewcomments
And here's an article about how the New York Times plans to use City University of New York journalism students to make it happen -- students who know they probably won't have a job when they gradute unless **SOMEBODY** figures out how to do journalism in the Internet age: http://www.buzzmachine.com/2009/02/28/the-times-cuny-and-others-go-hyperlocal/#comment-391146
The interesting thing about the last article is how Howard Owens, who was recently run out of GateHouse Media's internet operations (owner of the Waynesville Daily Guide, Rolla Daily News, and Camdenton Sun Leader) says this:
"For local to really work, the people in the local community really need identify the news source as their own. People of local interest are the kind of people to be tired of their corporate overlords. Itís not that they object to corporate ownership. They just donít want to have their face rubbed in it by a national brand. They want their local site to have their own local site name on it.
Which brings me to the second related point: the people running the site need to be personally identifiable to the community as part of the community. Itís best if they live in the community, but they at least need to come off as credibility concerned about that community and that community only. There is no substitute for real people in real communities. If you try to ďscaleĒ your local play without people, youíre doomed. It will be exceptionally difficult to drive participation and generate original content."
BINGO!!! He gets it!!! Give the guy a gold star!
That is **EXACTLY** what is wrong about GateHouse Media, at least how they are wrecking things here in Pulaski County. You just can't fire a well-loved local publisher and bring in an entirely out-of-town staff, and then have most of them not even live locally but actually live in Rolla, and expect things to work.
I'm guessing Mr. Owens wanted to say that all along but couldn't say it as long as he was working for GateHouse.
Here's more on why news media need to think "niche" rather than mass-media to survive: http://www.niemanlab.org/2009/02/locally-grown-news-gets-a-boost/
"As mass journalism markets unbundle and become niche markets, news operations, if they are to survive, will have to join the niche movement rather than fight it. Rather than think in terms of a circulation of, letís say, 100,000, they should think in terms of 100 niche markets of 1,000 each and form membership communities around those niches.
The centerpiece for each membership community will be the news and information tailored to each communityís needs, with a reporter and editing support devoted specifically to each community of 1,000. Online social networking, interactivity, face-to-face events will all be used to build group cohesion."
My take on this?
Again, none of this is new to small newspapers. We've been doing this all along. It's why people read small-town newspapers. Maybe the big boys are finally waking up and going back to their own roots -- fifty or a hundred years ago, they were doing the same thing.