This week Slate.com media columnist Jack Shafer posted a pair of articles about the emerging hyperlocal news space. The first post, “Hyperloco: Why I find AOL’s Patch sites so off-putting”, took a shot at Shafer’s local Patch.com site in suburban DC. Shafer mainly expressed a distaste for the corporate, scaled local news environment, but he lumped this with negative, erroneous generalities regarding the whole community/hyperlocal information space.
The post was classic comment bait, and readers took it immediately. Among them, Howard Owens, Tracy Record, David Boraks, and Debra Galant — all publishers associated with the Block by Block independent news community. And all who earn a living filling some of the information void in their community left by legacy media.
Here is some of what they told Shafer:
“I’ve run local news sites and niche interest sites. In both cases, I’ve managed to build audiences that are passionate about what we publish. With local news, the passion has been off the chart.” –Howard Owens, TheBatavian.com
“Another article declaring the failure of community news on the web? More reporting needed here. Those of us who’ve been doing this for years beg to differ. There may well be a problem with mega-companies trying the McDonald’s approach to local news – scaling up so fast is expensive and these big guys are still trying to come up with a model. But this industry is not in the instant chain store zone (hope it never will be).” –David Boraks, DavidsonNews.net
“For those of us operating independent community news sites, it is a business that is NOT “wildly expensive” to run – Patch makes the classic error of adding the middle-management layer, among other expenses – and it is of great interest to hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people in our communities.” –Tracy Record, WestSeattleBlog.com
When these publishers registered their defense of the new news landscape and their role in shaping it, Shafer followed-up with a much better-informed piece, “Hyperloco, Pt. 2: More about Patch and the other hyperlocal news sites”, the next day.
As Block by Block community manager, I, too, had something to say about Shafer’s piece. Here is the text of my letter-to-the-editor style comment, which I posted on Slate.com under Shafer’s article:
Thank you Jack Shafer for the thorough follow-up to your Tuesday column, Hyperloco, which expressed your frustration — and some misunderstanding — of the online local news space.
And thank you to Howard Owens and other independent publishers who corrected the record, so to speak, about their leadership role in and influence on community journalism. I work with Howard and a number of other independent publishers across the country as community manager for Block by Block where I follow the changing local news infrastructure and sustainability. I have been following news start-ups since 2009, when I started cataloging them at inothernews.us.
What the first Hyperloco column (Part 1?) illustrates is the disconnect between audience perception of legacy media and expectations of the emerging digital news and information ecosystem. As most of the original column concerned your distaste for your local AOL Patch site, your message also revealed a palpable fear and anger at large media companies.
As journalists who have watched companies like Gannett, McClatchy, Knight-Ridder, Tribune, etc. consolidate, go bankrupt, or shrink, new news producers such as Howard Owens and Debra Galant at Baristanet work many hours to keep information flowing in their communities. As news consumers, we all are tired of the dearth of local journalism legacy media has brought to meet bottom-line expectations. This includes not just print media, but traditional broadcast outlets as well.
The local media landscape continues to morph as technology evolves and communities shift. That’s where we are now. Keep watching the local news space, especially the local independent news space. It’s a good thing you can turn to ARLnow.com since your local Patch is not your cup of tea. Where once we relied on one or two information gatekeepers (paper, TV) for news that flowed in one direction, for the past several years local news start-ups, blogs, and social media have been engaging us. You especially have an advantage living in a suburban metro area with broadband connectivity and a demographic that supports local news experiments.
Whether Patch.com lives or dies depends on a lot of factors, and I do not agree with much of AOL’s scaled approach to local news. I have heard site quality varies by editor — which puts some human element into a corporate system.
The sky is not falling. Should you demand quality local information? Of course. But take a close look at the information space around you. Like the newspaper thrown on your doorstep, much of what you want is already there. Free. Digital. Daily.