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August 15, 2007

Hyperlocalism et al.: a note of caution

John Stoehr

Art is being separated from the people who make it. News is being separated from the people who report it. The consumer has control; she is in charge; she doesn't really care where her media -- news, music, movies -- comes from.

Just as long as she can get it.

Case in point is the most recent report regarding illicit downloading. This study from Europe finds that teenagers there are downloading songs for illegally because everyone's doing it, even their parents. The more people who do it, the more people will do it. That's why, despite being aware of the potential for legal repercussions, teenagers have little fear. In fact, they say they'll likely do more.

I've been drawing a lot of parallels between the music industry's woes and the issues facing the newspaper industry. The reason is that the changes taking place in one seem to mirror those in the other -- and the changes center on the consumer.

As I noted last week, a fundamental component of that change is a shift in position, in the case of newspapering, of the reader from a place of passive consumption to active participation. It seems any effort to discover a new business model to save an ailing newspaper industry will have to address this shift in the reader's position.

When USA Today launched its new website earlier this year, it addressed this issue head on by aiming to "create a community around the news." In this way, USA Today was structuring itself similarly to social networking websites like MySpace and Facebook and Bebo, which give users tools for active participation.

"Using the new features, users can see other news sources directly on the USA Today site; see others readers' reactions to stories; recommend content and comments to each other; interact using comments and in public forums, upload digital photographs to the site; write arts and culture reviews of their own; and interact more with the newspaper's staff," according to the paper's PR in March.

By giving users so many ways of interacting with the news, the newspaper and each other, the hope is to drive traffic toward the website and keep it there. The thinking is that the information and virtual experience will be so valuable that readers will endure advertising, as they do with TV, if they want to get at the goodies they value.

It sounds like a great idea and goodness knows we need good ideas right now. But I'm skeptical. As I've mentioned before, the new technologies of Web 2.0 are having the same affect on us right now as the phonograph did in the early 20th century: Just as the phonograph changed the way we hear music, Web 2.0 is changing the way readers uses the news. There is a fundamental change in consciousness underway.

As the new USA Today website makes clear, there are already serious attempts in the works to harness that change. And it may turn out to be an emulated model. Indeed, if it catches on, "creating a community around the news" will be a major shift from the way 20th Century Mass Media was structured.

Is it a good shift? I don't know. But one thing's for sure: Just as capital will naturally try to consolidate, capital will also try to get something for nothing.

What do I mean? I mean those in control of most of the capital will naturally try to seize a non-marketplace idea and press it into the service of the marketplace.

Let put it this way: The spirit that animates believers of Wikipedia is a good spirit in essence. That spirit wants to see information be free, democratic, accessible and used in ways that benefit the lives of the countless people who most need it.

That's a non-marketplace idea and it's a great one. The reality, however, is human nature. If anyone can access Wikipedia, then anyone can commit whatever acts of dishonesty, slander, et al. that they wish (until at least it's detected and corrected).

Wikipedia has been compared to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Some say its just as accurate. Some don't. The vital difference, however, is mediation: One has the benefits of experts in their fields sifting through information, making it quality stuff.

The question isn't about accuracy, really, because as I said before Wikipedia will fix acts of dishonestly. The real question is more fundamental: Which do you trust?

I think this "creating a community around the news" thing is interesting, but I fear it could create a situation like Britannica vs. Wikipedia. (I know it wouldn't be exactly like this; no one can vandalize news reports by USA Today staff like they can on Wikipedia; I'm just trying to make a point here, jeesh.) Will "communities around the news" challenge our trust, too?

I'm also worried that newspaper companies looking to do journalism on the cheap -- and we know there are plenty of those out there -- may take the otherwise positive notion of "creating community," a notion that appeals to our native American sense of fairness and equality, and use it for far less noble ends.

The buzz words now are hyperlocalism, citizen journalism, iReporting and so on, but mostly hyperlocalism and citizen journalism. On CNN, they're calling it "iReporting" or something like that. Anyway, it's sounds great, so empowering to the community, but guess what? It's also really cheap.

Cheap is the magic word to boardroom VPs of publicly traded news companies looking for a rationale to acquire information, images and video that previously, in order to get them, required paying a professional journalist a salary and benefits.

Now, backed up by the ideology of "hyperlocalism" et al., execs can talk up the case for more "reader-generated content" while talking down the fact that it's free of charge. We arts journalists should be concerned. We're already feeling pretty insecure about our relative value to the news hole. Well, with the new USA Today website, users can "write arts and culture reviews of their own."

Cheap is as cheap does but that don't matter when shareholders come a-calling.

And while management is focusing on getting more readers involved in the newspaper (everyone is blogging, blogging, blogging), they're failing to provide the human and financial resources needed to give readers something to read.

In my newsroom alone, the staff has shrunk by half since I arrived. Many have left for other newsrooms, some have been fired, others have left the field entirely. One reporter left to head a nonprofit in education. Another to be a PR flack for the city of Savannah. One is taking a post with a research foundation. And another, a veteran sportswriter, resigned yesterday to work for the local TV station.

Local TV news! That's got to be a new low.

Readers are taking notice, too. We have this feature called the Vox Populi. Readers can call in to voice their opinions anonymously. A recent caller complained about the lack of reporting on local news and issues in the Savannah Morning News: "Why do you have a multimillion dollar building but only run stories from the AP?"

I guess I'd better get used to repeating myself, but here it is again: While I understand why some are celebrating the potential of emerging technologies, I'm still skeptical. We don't live and work in a vacuum. While the technology, like the phonograph, may change our consciousness, we still have to make a living.

I don't mean to sound alarmist or even Marxist. I just think there's reason to worry as long as profit-driven, growth-oriented companies run newspapers. They are going to do what's best for shareholders, not journalism and not for readers, as John S. Carroll, the former editor of the LA Times, noted in a speech cited in Russell Baker's essay on the state of newspapering.

Bottom line: the bottom line trumps all, and if we're not careful amid our celebration of the potential benefits of emerging technologies on arts journalism, we may, like our friends the musicians, end up finding out later on that no one's getting paid.

Posted by John Stoehr at August 15, 2007 6:22 AM


To what extent has that trust already been eroded? And has reader-generated content simply risen up in response? It's an open question.

The amount of AP content in most local papers is not the fault of bloggers, it has been that way since long before the rise of the internet.

I think one of the problems with the newspaper business is that most papers sat on the golden egg of classified and being the only local print advertising for so long they took it for granted, and most don't seem to yet know how to respond.

This predates me a bit, but from what I'm told the large daily papers said the same thing about the rise of weeklies a generation ago, which at least where I've lived, provided the bulk of arts journalism.

Posted by: Tony at August 15, 2007 8:10 AM

I actually got into a conversation with a musician about this last week. He was saying that his big concern with the Internet wasn't so much that people were stealing his music but that with services like MySpace and YouTube, "anyone can be as legit as anyone else. You can watch someone's video online, but that doesn't tell you whether they can stand up in front of an audience and deliver the same thing live," or whether its been digitally manipulated in some way.

I thought, "I know exactly what you are talking about," because the whole citizen journalist-reader review thing makes it harder for readers to discern between a trained professional journalist and the person who just posts something on a lark or to advance an agenda. I wish papers would be more careful not to compromise their good brand names, but that doesn't seem to be happening.

Posted by: Rich Copley at August 15, 2007 9:44 AM

I hear ya. Dance critic available.

I'm new to your blog so please excuse if I am repeating a discussion.

Company blogs promoting their product over others, and screen names for specially interested groups and individuals, are putting holes in public trust.

Have you ever checked out "reviews" of hotels? It's too easy for someone, or more than one, to plant a bug in the consumer's bonnet about the competition.

A new program, just out, tracks Wikipedia sources. That should help a bit. The best defense is to seek many sources, and credentials. The responsibility falls on the consumer to look for the truth.

Posted by: Lori Ortiz at August 16, 2007 6:43 AM