Friday, October 10, 2008

Moving Beyond Local Weather, Traffic and Crime

One of more interesting side effects of traditional media's current struggles (declining subscriptions/viewership, fragmenting audiences, decreased ad revenue and, hence, operating budgets) is a resurgence of interest and discussion about local news coverage. While many local newspapers are, among other cost-cutting steps, having to scale back on overseas news-gathering bureaus, relying more and more on the outsourced reporting of Reuters and the Associated Press, there's an optimism, forced or genuine I'm not entirely sure, in their dedication and ability to report on local matters in a way that other news outfits (the nationals like New York Times or USA Today) simply can't. Granted, this local news isn't sexy, it's not creating the news cycle narratives like the nationals are able to, but I do feel like I've read and heard numerous local newsroom representatives and analysts (columnists, editors, bearded professors) waxing about how "nobody can provide the kind of local coverage like we can."

A whole page dedicated to the weather? Tom Skilling's got us covered at the Tribune. Reviews on the bands playing next week? the Reader's got a new pullout section! Want to know about the latest accessory, gadget or hip new restaurant? Time's Out Chicago's proven system of operation is ready with a blurb. The latest budget crisis, South Side shooting or North Side sexual assault? The Sun-Times Metro section.

Especially in urban areas, people are turning to a variety of sources--print, radio, TV, online, to get their fill of local news coverage. Personally, I depend on the local coverage provided by the likes of the Reader, the Tribunes Metro section (or did that morph or merge into something else entirely in their new design upgrade?), Time Out Chicago, online sources like Gapers Block and aggregators like EveryBlock and Chicago. Taken together, these sources help me with understanding and more fully engaging in what's happening around me. I also watch a smattering of local TV news in the morning and at lunch. It's focus can be distilled down to local weather, traffic, sports, crime and entertainment offerings. There's not much of merit, though PBS Chicago does have some admirable Chicago based programming, key among them being Check Please with sommelier Alpana Singh.

And joining these more established media sources in their local reporting are millions of amateurs. I find that tremendously heartening. A nascent citizen-based journalism/grassroots media movement is afoot. These are people, many without any journalistic training, who are leveraging social media tools to offer expanded or more intimate local news and human-interest coverage. More often then not, this grassroots media is print based. Increasingly, however, my own interest lies with those who are using video to create and tell interesting/informative local stories. What I want to know more about are the various platforms they're distributing these stories on. Yes, YouTube is one way to distribute, and studies show that, especially amongst younger audiences (though trending to older demographics as well), there's been a re-allocation of how we spend our media time. Younger audiences, for example, don't just consume media through the more traditional outlets of print, TV and radio, but via platforms like YouTube. Amateur content is being created and others are actively consuming it. But YouTube is more free-form, its mission is more anything goes, and so I'm increasingly interested in those distribution platforms or organizations that seek to cover more hyper-local human interest stories or provide more civic-minded content as well as have missions that include training people with how to use the cheap tools at their disposal to create meaningful content and ensuring it finds a broader audience.

I'm most interested in how public libraries can do just this.

I suppose what I'm talking about can be (and has been) called hyper-local content, stories about developments, events or people in communities that all demographics have a hunger for but are rarely, if ever, covered by traditional news outlets. Online, as discussed, it one distribution platform that folks have been using, but increasingly telecommunication companies like Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner are competing to provide hyper-local news via their cable outlets. In a paper published earlier this year, Adam Thieren and Grant Eskelsen wrote:

Many cable television providers have jumped into the local TV news business and provide a wide variety of local public affairs programming. A 2004 report by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF) found that “millions of Americans can now tune in to regional and local news on more than 30 cable channels across the country.” The RTNDF found that these local and regional cable TV news and public affairs channels provide “non-stop local news” that is “as local as local news can get.”

Are they creating their own content, or are they open to the kind of content a library might produce? And just what would a library produce? Well, this:

No comments: