Hyperlocal …in the best neighborhoods

“Free!”

That’s been the slogan in the news industry for quite some time now.  But what does this do for emerging journalists who are looking to break into the business?

I was contacted by a member of newmuseum.org a few weeks ago who informed me about a new exhibit being held titled “The Last Newspaper”.  The exhibit examines how artists digest and respond to stories, images and videos which “command the headlines”.  They have been following the progress of “Fit to Print” and will be showcasing some of our blog posts and still photographs within the exhibit. This is a great event which I hope everyone has a chance to see. It does something we could use more of in the news industry — examining ways in which the news affects us on a greater whole.  Perhaps if more publishers and technologists spent more time examining how news plays a role on our emotional psyche, they would be able to
create news platforms which would thus transform into more sustainable business models.

The exhibit is being held in the Bowery in downtown Manhattan.  As part of the “Fit to Print” contribution, I have been asked to examine how the relevance
of the location for the event ties in with The New York Times’ recently launched ‘East Village blog’ in collaboration with NYU journalism students.

As an artist’s colony, the Bowery has always been a beacon of culture which has defined Manhattan and New York City for quite some time.  Throughout
the 20th century, this area has infamously been known as “skid row”.  The artistic community flourished during that time with names such as Brice Marden, Eva Hesse, Mark Rothko and Roy Lichtenstein, who lived and worked in the area (something newspaper reporters hardly do anymore).

That neighborhood is hardly a skid row anymore.  It has undergone a massive gentrification with luxury hotels, restaurants and stores now lining the once ‘underbelly’ of the city.

What does this say about the type of news coverage it now receives?  Simple: it gets more of it.

It has always been the tradition of legacy news organizations to cater to wealthier neighborhoods in order to attract bigger advertising. Newspapers, until 2003/04, had enjoyed double digit profit margins by focusing on advertising which attracted people who would be sure spenders.  Gone was the mentality of serving the need of the public over the greed of Wall Street.  Organizations such as The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, Newsday and Baltimore Sun were only a few of the newspapers which made impressive efforts from the late 1960’s-1990’s to cater to wealthier neighborhoods.  With the rise of 24-hour cable news during the early 1980’s, news executives from television networks quickly discovered how profitable news could actually be.  The newspaper industry was quick to follow in their lead.  “What we were doing felt like redlining in a lot ways”, states Geneva Overholser, who worked for a number of years at the Gannett Corporation – the biggest newspaper chain in the country for the past 40 years. “We extended our reach to wealthy areas because that was where the money was. It got so bad that newspaper companies even started removing newspaper dispenser boxes from lower-income communities.”  The real skid rows, lower-income communities predominately made up of minorities, were left by the wayside.  It’s no wonder this was happening, they barely had any minorities fighting for them in the newsroom.  There still has yet to be an African-American or Hispanic newspaper publisher to run a major U.S.paper with the reach of a New York Times or Washington Post.

If we examine the ‘hyperlocal’ mentality newspapers are now zeroing in on, it’s easy to see how they continue to cherry-pick wealthier neighborhoods for experimentation.  Take for example, The Washington Post’s embarrassing hyperlocal experiment “LoudounExtra”, which targeted Loundoun County, Virginia.  It’s no surprise that Loundoun is one of the most affluent counties in the U.S.  According to author Jeff Kaye, in the “potential readership of big spenders, the site fizzled.”

Jump to The New York Times’ “East Village Blog”, and again, it’s no surprise to see a major newspaper reach for a more affluent neighborhood in order to test a hyperlocal experiment.  Except this time, there’s another added bonus:  free writing from NYU journalism students.  Why not knock two birds out with one stone?  Especially since The Times recently (again) reported a quarterly loss. The idea behind the hyperlocal wave is not something to be dismissed. It can, and will provide citizen journalists with the opportunity to engage with their communities on a much larger and more organized platform.

…But the “East Village Blog”?

The start-ups for hyperlocal news should begin in poorer communities, not rich ones.  The Times should be making the South Bronx, Bushwick or Bedstuy the priority.  Those are the local neighborhoods which need well-rounded community interaction in the form of journalism.  Maybe if The Times made an effort to work exclusively in these poorer areas where crime and poverty are higher, we would have a clearer understanding of where the problems in the city stem from.  My theory on reporters or publishers is the same as my theory on politicians: force them to live in the poorest neighborhoods in order to truly understand those they’re serving.

The idea of major newspaper companies jumping on the hyperlocal bandwagon seems a bit odd.  For one, it’s reactionary.  Big newspapers are desperately trying to keep up with the latest trends in journalism instead of creating them. They shouldn’t have to resort to citizen journalists in the first place.  That’s why they pay reporters to cover local areas (or once did).  Oddly enough, many of those former newspaper reporters are now teaching journalism courses.  The same courses which stress the importance of writing for an over-hyped New York Times blog.  Why?  Because it looks good on a resume.

The significance of newspaper company branding is dead, and should stay dead.  If you’re a journalism student with enough confidence to turn over your work to a newspaper company that has the balls to work their unpaid interns to death, while at the same time lay-off salaried staffers, you should have enough confidence to start your own hyperlocal news website and self-promote.  With the emergence of blog reference sites like Technorati, there is no need to worry about whether or not people will see your work.  If it’s well done, people will find it.  That’s the beauty of the web.  Self branding is the name of the game.  Just look at The Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin who has others blog for him under the umbrella name ‘Andrew Ross Sorkin’.  I don’t know about you, but if I’m proud of my work, it sure the hell isn’t going to have someone else’s name on it.

For artists, reporters and anyone working in the media, now is the time to band together.  Carve out your own niche and work as hard as you can at it.  Newspapers like The Times and others will continue to suffer because of their own complacency.  And though their hard-working staffers certainly don’t deserve to be laid-off, the top brass has cut their own throats and forced those below them to suffer.

I say …let the talent from these once great newspapers evaporate.  The staffers and the public deserve better.  Let the talent they once had drain out from under them and form new and exciting ways to tell stories and provide news elsewhere.

The digital revolution shouldn’t be called a ‘revolution’ unless people actually have the courage to act on it.

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