Hyper-local News In The Post-Newspaper Era
from the amateur-hour dept
Rather than simply wringing his hands about how the decline of the newspaper means that no one will report local news, Reason's Jesse Walker actually gives some thought to where local news coverage might come from in a post-newspaper world. He focuses on people and institutions that can provide hyper-local news: not just about a state or metropolitan area, but of a particular town or even a specific neighborhood. For example, most communities already have one or more local gadflies who regularly attend city council and school board meetings and are often the first to notice funny business by government officials. Traditionally, if a gadfly spotted something he thought the public should know about, he had to convince a reporter to cover his scoop. Now there's no filter: the gadfly can post the story to his blog. That won't necessarily mean that a lot of people will read his post, but it at least gives him the opportunity to be noticed by others online. Jesse notes that local activists, government insiders, and community organizations are also candidates to do much of the work that has traditionally been done by local reporters.
The striking thing about this list is how diverse it is. In the traditional, vertically-indicated news business, a single institution oversees the entire news "supply chain," from the reporter attending the local city council meeting to the paper boy who delivers the finished newspaper to readers. The technological and economic constraints of newsprint meant that the whole process had to be done by full-time employees and carefully coordinated by a single, monolithic organization. But the Internet makes possible a much more decentralized model, in which lots of different people, most of them volunteers, participate in the process of gathering and filtering the news. Rather than a handful of professional reporters writing stories and an even smaller number of professional editors deciding which ones get printed, we're moving toward a world that Clay Shirky calls publish, then filter: anyone can write any story they want, and the stories that get the most attention are determined after publication by decentralized, community-driven processes like Digg, del.icio.us, and the blogosphere.
Decentralized news-gathering processes can incorporate small contributions from a huge number of people who aren't primarily in the news business. You don't need to be a professional reporter to write a blog post every couple of weeks about your local city council meeting. Nor do you need to be a professional editor to mark your favorite items in Google Reader. Yet if millions of people each contribute small amounts of time to this kind of decentralized information-gathering, they can collectively do much of the work that used to be done by professional reporters and editors.
Unfortunately, this process is hard to explain to people who don't have extensive experience with the Internet's infrastructure for decentralized information-gathering. Decentralized processes are counter-intuitive. Having a single institution promise to cover "all the news that's fit to print" seems more reliable than having a bunch of random bloggers cover the news in an uncoordinated fashion. The problem is that, in reality, newspapers are neither as comprehensive nor as reliable as they like to pretend. Just as a few dozen professionals at Britannica couldn't produce an encyclopedia that was anywhere near as comprehensive as the amateur-driven Wikipedia, so a few thousand newspaper reporters can't possibly to cover the news as thoroughly as millions of Internet-empowered individuals can. This isn't to disparage the reporters and editors, who tend to be smart and dedicated. It's just that they're vastly outnumbered. As Jesse Walker points out, any news gathering strategy that doesn't incorporate the contributions of amateurs is going to be left in the dust by those that do.