Everybody wants to go local. Internet-wise, it sounds like the new flavor of the month week. Going local is a digital and idealistic version of Mao Zedong’s “hundred flowers blossom”. (The Chinese dictator did actually encourage the expression of dissenting opinions; this turned out to have unpleasant consequences for those who took Dear Leader to his word). So, fine. Let’s see thousands of European and US cities generate a flurry of local websites covering city councils, local controversies, urban planning, etc. Every committed citizen will be able to monitor the community’s pulse just by clicking on a URL; it will be easy and efficient to launch (or to join) grassroots campaigns against the construction of an ugly overpass or for the clean-up a hazardous landfill. All of this is real.
As I write this, I listen to NYU professor Clair Shirky’s lecture delivered last September at the Harvard University Shorentsein Center (transcript and Video here). Always brilliant and convincing, Shirky revisited the 1992 pedophile priests scandal in Boston, one that was heavily covered by the Boston Globe, but died out due to a lack of resonance in the public. Evidently, today, things would have reverberated very differently. So, yes, there is a useful future for local digital media.
Having said this, allow me to express a slightly skeptical view.
First, people tend to celebrate the hyperlocal web for the wrong reasons, that is the depletion of local coverage by traditional media. Last Thursday, I was at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston (UK) for its 12th Digital Editors Network. There, the British news agency Press Association presented a “Public Service Reporting” project. The PA would recruit legions of citizen journalists, they would be asked to comply with the agency’s ethics standards as they report on local issues. As for now, the PA is building several pilots and is looking for funding. Tony Johnston, The PA’s training chief who presented the case, stated its ambition: a network of 500 to 800 journalists costing £15m to £18m a year (€17-20m, $24-29m). In a preamble, he explained that the British newspapers’ shrinking local coverage paved the way to such an initiative (details in Journalism.co.uk here).
Well. There are two ways of considering such move. One is to say: Great, community members take over the coverage that matters to them, they use all available tools: social network, live blogging, Flip-camera produced videos, to give local stuff the exposure it needs.
Another view is this: Doing local journalism is as complicated as any other kind of reporting. Poring over local financial records requires the same amount of time, dedication and expertise as digging into a national political party’s finances. Yes, citizen-like journalists will do fine reporting on “lighter” issues such as the state of schools or of the sewage system. But uncovering and preventing what really matters, such as the misuse of public funding, rigged bidding procedures for large projects and so on is a very different story.
More broadly, a professional journalist is required to avoid take sides in doing his or her job. Leaving such coverage to self-appointed journalists is opening the pandora’s box to all kinds of agenda-driven reporting. The internet already suffers from a blogosphere that is largely infected by brand-induced spinning (see our story Rotten Apples in the Reviews Barrel), with merchants taking advantage of bloggers’ lack of training and precarious finances to blend advertisement with reviews. Chances are the same will happen with local coverage provided by brave citizen reporters who will have a hard time remaining independent.
As I write this, the situation in the South of France (the Provence-Côte d’Azur region) comes to mind. Down there, not a single large public infrastructure bid is adjudicated in a fair and transparent way. Big utility companies conspire, divvying-up markets, price-fixing multimillion deals. They do this in an increasingly sophisticated way, to the point where the judicial system has mostly given up (OK, regional governments also threw their hands up too; reasons are part incompetence, part business, …hem, pragmatism). Plus, thanks to skilled PR firms, these conglomerates became increasingly better at spinning the tale in the “right” direction.
Point is: no brigade of well-intentioned citizen journalists will have the resources to unveil what really “counts”. It doesn’t mean we have to give up the concept of public reporting; I’m merely emphasizing it won’t replace true, professional (and expensive) journalism.
When it comes to the Holy Grail of local news on the internet, the other reason for my skepticism lies into their economic sustainability. If you rely on volunteers, you get what you pay for. Should you compensate bloggers, costs will climb fast. The advertising market? Well, chances are your independence will collide with your business needs. Plus, local ads are hopelessly cheap. On the French market, for instance, multi-local newspapers know that the ratio between national ads and local ones is roughly 10:1. Apply this to the web economy, it’s unlikely you’d build a decent revenue stream.
Paid-for services? Maybe, but they require a different model. People are unlikely to pay for local news; they might, possibly, pay for data-rich packages but the free supply is already abundant. Just consider EveryBlock.com, it aggregates tons of public records (crimes, building permits, restaurant inspections, all sorts of stats) into a cleverly arranged interface. Covering 15 American cities, it collects a small audience (445,000 unique visitors in October according to Quantcast — and no growth). Aside of an acquisition by MSNBC last summer, we don’t see a business model, even though EveryBlock is just a six person operation (see the article in the NY Times).
Some pundits remain bullish on hyperlocal coverage by bloggers. In The Guardian, Jeff Jarvis recently defended (romanticized?) the idea of building “an ecosystem around hyperlocal bloggers“. He mentioned “some” (how many? 30 or 3000?) hyperlocal bloggers “serving” (what does he means by this? “Reporting“, “covering” is fine, but “serving“…) markets of 50,000 people making $200,000 in advertising revenue. With no further specifics, it sounds more like wishful thinking than facts.
Large newspapers are thinking hard about local or hyperlocal coverage and they closely monitor the “ecosystem” (see The Guardian’s topic page on Hyperlocal Media). Many, such as the New York Times, seem concerned with missing the local train (in Chicago for instance). This is actually a smart move for brand consolidation. But as far as the beef is concerned, they better get ready for a vegetarian meal. —firstname.lastname@example.org