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. More