The imperative of localism and local news

"Hyperlocal" is an ugly word.

This fad coinage is meant to represent a new discovery, a new way of thinking about journalism: "Hey, gee, we should do some of this local stuff. People might actually like to read about their home towns."

"Hyperlocal" is ugly because it attempts to rewrite history, ignoring the noble, once-primary role of newspapers — largely forgotten by journalists and publishers in the past several decades — as the concourse for community life.

In the decades preceding the current "hyperlocal" fad, professional journalists, and the people who manage them, didn’t seem to realize is that "local" is what newspapers did before the "professionals" took over and decided the local flower show was nothing more than a calendar item and real news mean combing over every council member’s campaign contributions.

Now before I go too far in bashing "professional" journalists, let me clarify what I mean: When Walter Lippmann wrote Liberty and the News in 1922, with its indisputable and irrefutable call to eliminate the average newshound’s careless handling of fact and his facile understanding of events, he correctly diagnosed the need for a better educated, less callow, more thoughtful kind of reporter. But what Lippmann meant by professionalism, and objectivity, is not the brand of professional journalist that eventually emerged.

Lippmann’s conception of "professional" had nothing to do with learning the craft and tools of reportage so that one might demonstrate better news judgment or never forget a who, what or when; it had everything to do with applying a scientific, intellectual approach to gathering facts, weighing evidence and presenting reports.

Journalism has gone astray by giving us too much of the former and too little of the latter.

For the purpose of this post, I’m speaking of professionalization — with its stenographic and reader-may-care approach to news — as practiced, not as it should be.  (I’ll have more on Lippmann in a later post).

The Hyperlocal Fad
There would be no need for a word such as "hyperlocal" if there wasn’t a void to fill in community news coverage. The bare existence of the term speaks to the unfocused and misplaced coverage of most newspapers over the past several decades. The advocates of "hyperlocal" needed a term to differentiate what most newsrooms did compared to what they should do; or for those outside of the industry who applied the word to their own Web start-ups, they used "hyperlocal" to describe the opportunity left gaping by newspapers.

But what we now call "hyperlocal" is what William Allen White called "locals."  White saw no distinction between the role of a newspaper in its community and the community. The Emporia Gazette printed to be the community, not merely to deliver the news.

The narrative arch of the Gazette says something about what a community newspapers should be, and where local newspapers went wrong. As White grew older, achieved greater wealth, and settled into national prominence, he increasingly ceded editorial control of his newspaper to a J-school-educated, younger staff. In Home Town News, a biography of White, Sally Foreman Griffith writes:

The divergence between White’s vision of journalism and his staff’s reflected different conceptions of the Gazette‘s proper role. The divergence appeared most clearly in the continuing conflict over the paper’s locals. According to Frank Clough, Lambert’s successor as city editor, both William Allen and Sallie White constantly complained that their weren’t enough locals in the paper. But the editors argued that the Gazette was no longer a local paper and should emphasize "its district news, its associated press reports, and its features rather than its strictly Emporia news." Clough told Mrs. White on one occasion, "the Gazette is just like a boy who is too big for short pants and his parents don’t think he is big enough for long ones."  ”Go along with you,’ she retorted. ‘Tell your reporters we need some more local items and don’t let your pants get too big for you.’" The two generations finally compromised on a policy of publishing the locals that were brought to the Gazette but seeking out only items concerning "the town’s more prominent citizens." From the point of view of White’s earlier broader vision of community, such compromise amounted to defeat.

Newspapers and Democracy
There has been much consternation of late among the print set about newspapers dying and its effect on society, such as this column in the Seattle Times, which asks:

Who will tell the people what their institutions are doing? Who will ferret out the corruption? Who will fend off the legal challenges to public information? If no viable alternative emerges, what does that mean for our representative democracy?

Those are all fine questions, and certainly nobody is suggesting that a community should be without reporters who know how to hold government officials accountable, but there is also a trace of pretension in that line of thinking, that only newspaper journalists can do the job. and that’s the only kind of journalistic job worth doing.

Newspapers abdicated their role as stalwarts of democracy in the mid-20th Century as they moved away from conveying community life to takers of minutes and recorders of controversy, more dedicated to the process of government and wire reports than what their friends and neighbors might be doing at the church on Wednesday night.

Once people could no longer pick up the local gazette and find out who was visiting from California and when Helen Carter was going to sell her famous peach pies, the papers became less relevant to their lives.

Without that relevancy, society and democracy suffered. People became not only less informed, but less involved in their communities.

Consider that 57 percent of Americans say that if their local newspaper went away, both online and in print, they wouldn’t miss it and it wouldn’t hurt the civic life of their towns. The numbers are just as dismal when the question is isolated just to regular newspaper readers. This is in keeping with an earlier Harris poll that found nearly two-thirds of Americans say their local newspaper doesn’t serve its community well.

There is a nexus, I believe, between readership declines and less engaged communities that cannot be blamed entirely on the rise of radio and television nor on changes in urban-to-suburban lifestyles.

Readership Declines
It’s not often discussed in newsrooms, but readership declines started at least fifty years before the introduction of Mosaic. Readership peaked in the late 1940s, more than a decade after radio became a commercial force, and years before television reached popular saturation.

And while U.S. newspapers are not alone in facing competition from new technology or changes in social habits, the readership slide is greater in the U.S. than any other industrialized nation, with American papers now ranking low on readership 1,000 adults.

There is certainly something going on with American newspaper readership that can’t be blamed on radio, television, the Internet nor changes in lifestyles.

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam writes about Americans becoming increasingly disengaged from their communities in the final quarter of the 20th Century. People stopped joining bowling leagues, or the American Legion, or showing up for the big community fundraiser.

Putnam writes about social capital, the idea that interconnectedness among people is what sustains a community. Web 2.0 geeks like to talk about social networks, but social networks exist in the non-digital world as well. If you understand the importance of people learning about what’s going on in the lives of their friends, family and neighbors, it’s easy to see why a newspaper that carries such news is contributing to the social capital of its community.

When newspapers stopped making such deposits in the bank of community good will, they became increasingly disengaged and less relevant to their home towns.

By every measure, according to Putnam, civic engagement peaked in the mid-1960s, well after the rise of television and suburban flight.

It wouldn’t be surprising however, that people stopped reading their local papers long before they stopped attending Rotary meetings. People are, after all, social animals. The long habit of social networking with people in their community would be less easily broken than a connection to a paid-circulation newspaper.

Circulation and readership declines are lagging indicators of a failure to contribute social capital.  Declining community participation is a lagging indicator of less knowledge about friends and neighbors.

Both might be equally blamed on the turn from community news to more professionally produced political and process coverage by newspaper staffs. I call this "Castor oil" coverage, as in "we think this is important and we don’t care whether you, dear reader, agree — take it and don’t whine about it."

(And note, too, readership declines started before newspaper chains became massive entities and were often publicly traded, so readership losses are not necessarily an ownership problem, either.)

Building Community on the Web
Sadly, its probably too late to save newspapers, and it’s too late for newspapers to save their communities.

The Web won’t save newspapers. The mere transference of newspaper journalism onto digital devices is a doomed business model.

But the Web can save and revitalize local communities.

I’ve spent my career in or around small newspapers. I’ve never worked for a big metro, and outside of once dreaming of an editorialist’s job with the San Diego Evening Tribune, I’ve not aspired to life at a paper of more than 100K circulation. I’m a home town boy at heart, even though I’ve never really had a home town.

One of the great benefits of launching The Batavian is that it brought me into contact with Bill Kauffman, author and historian whose books include Dispatches from The Muckdog Gazette and Look Homeward, America.

Before I met Bill, I never heard the word "localist," but I know now, that’s what I am (and I’m not alone; there is a movement in this country of localists/placists), and localism is at the core of my political philosophy. I believe strong communities make for a stronger democracy.  Call me a Luddite in the face of digital globalization and international hyperlinks, I still believe in the importance and vitality of geographic communities (and I’m sure I’ll get the comment or two calling me naive for not bowing down to the inevitable gods of a one-world community, or communities of interest replacing geographic connectedness).

Kauffman writes of himself in Look Homeward, America:

I am an American patriot. A Jeffersonian decentralist. A fanatical localist. And I am an anarchist. Not a sallow garret-rat translating Proudhon by pirated kilowatt, nor a militiaman catechized by the Classic Comics version of The Turner Diaries; rather, I am the love child of Henry Thoreau and Dorothy Day, conceived amidst the asters and goldenrod of an Upstate New York autumn.

Like so many of the subjects of this book, I am also a reactionary radical, which is to say I believe in peace and justice but I do not believe in smart bombs, daycare centers, Wal-Mart, television, or Melissa Etheridge’s test-tube baby.

You may not agree with all of Kauffman’s politics, but there is something to be said for finding fervor and valor in cherishing your home town and the unique individuals that give it vitality.

As journalists, we’ve gotten away from cherishing community — that isn’t objective enough — and it’s hurt not only democracy, but our business model.

Strong local communities are important to the education of our children, the safety of our streets, the growth of our businesses, the employment of our neighbors and the quality of our parks.  By every measure, our well being depends on the quality of life were we live.

There’s nothing wrong with leading a digital life, but in the end you still need a life beyond the walls of your dwelling, and the kind of life you live in your community depends on the quantity of social capital you build.

It’s impossible to squander social capital and expect a community to thrive. We still share in the responsibility for potholes and clean parks, whether or not we drive or walk a dog. We are all part of a geographic community, whether we admit it or hide behind our Facebook friend feed.

And journalists, most of all, and publishers, and even the ad sales reps, can’t escape from social responsibility. If communities are to become vital again, journalism is going to either provide the bonds and lead the conversation, or cease even its current tenuous hold on relevance.

It’s ironic, given what I hoped to accomplish with The Batavian, that I picked Bill Kauffman’s community before I ever read a sentence of his work. The mission of The Batavian was never, in my mind, merely to fix the local news business model, but also to revitalize community journalism. Of course, to me, the business model and the journalism model are one and the same.  Revenue declines are closely related to readership declines, so we must fix readership before we can fix revenue.

The early results of The Batavian drawing together a community and creating a more engaged readership is promising. I do believe the digital tools of instant publishing, unlimited space, conversation and connection can re-energize the kind of community journalism that inspired William Allen White to grow the Gazette into a great local institution.

If this approach works — whether it be The Batavian or similar ventures —  we can reverse the trend of "bowling alone" and bring back the kind of community life that best serves a vibrant democracy.

But to make this approach work, it’s going to take people — including many of today’s trained journalists — to rethink everything they’ve learned about community journalism as practiced over the past half century or so. Merely promoting the "hyperlocal" fad isn’t going to get the job done. We need to bring back locals, and bring back the direct connection and involvement in the community by the people covering the community. This isn’t the detachment taught in J-schools. It’s participatory and social. But it will work. It must.

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2 thoughts on “The imperative of localism and local news

  1. Frist: Welcome back.

    Second: In a sense, you are right. Hyperlocal is just a new way of describing what GOOD newspapers have been doing all along.

    But the phrase wasn’t coined by or for the consuption of those journalists who are producing local news. It’s a word for deep thinkers and visionaries who do more talking and writing about news than they do writing and reporting news … the Jay Rosens of the world.

    In MY circle of friends, "hyperlocal" means keeping an eye on your neighborhood association. For the New York Times, it might mean doing some reporting from Queens. For all I know, I only read the national news in the NYT.

  2. Hi Howard–as always, a really great post!  and while I agree that hyperlocal is an ugly word, I think how the word is good to describe sites that are a bit different from those that are local news sites.  Take, for instance, the CRUSH community site for Holyoke Mass.  It’s a "hyperlocal" site (ning community) for artists in Holyoke.  Yes, it has art community news, but it doesn’t report on Holyoke in general.  Likewise sites like Manhattan Lunch, and similar sites that focus on a particular aspect of a community or  region without taking into consideration other news going on around them.

    I recently used the term at a women in media conference to describe these types of sites and blogs.  I refrain from the term "placeblog" these days, as the sites aren’t always blogs anymore (now with the advent and growth of social  networking sites.)  They can be wikis or Ning communities, or twitter accounts.  They are "hyperlocal" in that their focus is narrow.  Many have no intention of replacing the local newspaper, or with competing with local independent newsblogs or newsites.  The news may be only for a particular group inasmuch as it might be for a particular neighborhood or region. 

    So, while it’s an ugly word, and can be applied to a type of reporting, it’s also a great term to descirbe what is going on at self-publishing platforms that has nothing to do with journalsim per se and more about creating specific community sites for specific comunities.

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