Tuscon, Denver and Seattle have all recently lost their printed newspapers. One, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, has moved to an all-online model, cutting its staff of 136 to down to just 20. It joins growing Web-papers like The Huffington Post, that just announced a new investigative news unit yesterday, and ProPublica, a non-profit political news site that recruited one of HuffPo's smartest alums this month. It seems that Web papers are beginning to achieve the legitimacy they've always wanted.
But interesting though they are, none of these sites do quite what local papers once did: provide street-level coverage of a given geographical area. In other words, Web papers have a local problem.
The local problem, paradoxically, wasn't just created by death of local papers; it also caused the death of local papers. As general Internet news sites stole some readers, hometown papers cut budgets and relied more on newswire reporting, which isn't as local. The more generalized the regional papers got, the less interesting they became to citizens. After all, local news isn't just about reporting local events—that part is easy. It's about maintaining a staff of journalists who attacked national topics from their city's perspective, who wrote op-eds that struck a chord with the regional audience, and who investigated scandals that might've drawn yawns from editors at bigger papers. As those waned, so did readership.
For a specimen of the problem, look at the Seattle P-I home page from yesterday: just a handful of substantive local, non-sports stories, flanked by a mess of celebrity photo galleries and AP headlines on the right. No wonder no one in Seattle was reading the print paper. It's barely about Seattle.
Sites like HuffPo and ProPublica have found success and readers, but their beats are idealogical, not endemic. (Another example of the idealogical news-based site, FoxNation, a subsidiary of Fox News, launched yesterday morning.) It's useful, sure, but it doesn't take into account the politics of the locality I'm reading from. That hasn't hampered its growth, but it still leaves the local niche wide open.
There's a solution to the local problem, if you take some personal initiative: read several separate sites, some for small-picture, some for big. In New York, we have Gothamist (its eponymous company also runs blogs for several other cities, like Seattlest and Chicagoist.) The Gothamist sites, and venues like them, are hyper-local and don't provide context the way long-form news usually does. Yesterday's headlines included: state senate news, a Chelsea stabbing, police blotter highlights, and a Brooklyn bike race. As a New Yorker, I'm lucky to have The New York Times to fill in the big-picture news; there's some overlap, but where Gothamist does the Brooklyn bike race story in 169 words, the Times does it in almost 800. Still, try finding the police blotter in the Times, or something on that stabbing in Chelsea. The point: news outlets are still doing local reporting, and they're still doing big-picture—just not under one title.
But for a citizen of the 21st century, in which I can order a pizza using my TiVo or network with fellow voters to elect a long-shot guy from Illinois, getting news from two or three sites just isn't up to snuff.
To be fair, the "local" problem is bigger than just journalism. CitySearch, for one, has recently redesigned its site to attack it, but from a nightlife perspective. Like sundry other ratings sites, CitySearch uses crowdsourcing to help users choose restaurants, and has leveraged its mass of data to dig down to the neighborhood level. That's also the strategy driving a handful of news sites like Outside.in, which is so localized it almost makes you want to shut your blinds. But Outside.in is more interested in finding stuff to do, so it's decidedly friendly; yesterday's headlines in New York were about a cheese shop down the street from my apartment, and recession specials at hip local clothiers. Where's the hard-hitting stuff?
Hope might be found in sites like NYC.IS, a brand new New York news aggregator that could be an example of how to solve the local news problem. (Full disclosure: an acquaintance of mine has worked on the project). It works via the up-voting and down-voting of stories, and you can submit New York-centric stories from any online newsource. Chicago-based folks also have a similar site called The Windy Citizen, unrelated to NYC.IS; both sites feature headlines from major newspaper sites, national news outlets, and prominent local bloggers, and both make use of easy-to-read Web 2.0 layouts and Facebook connectivity, which seem all but anathema to local newspaper sites like the Seattle P-I.
Right now, both NYC.IS and The Windy Citizen are brand new and unproven; the former only has a handful of stories on it, and The Windy Citizen clocks its usership at just about 1,000. But they're important models for what we all might be reading in the next decade. Sites like ProPublica and HuffPo have proven we can effectively filter that data by ideology, and sites like Global Grind prove we can filter data by subculture. NYC.IS and The Windy Citizen might be an example of how we filter locally.
But crowd-selected local news raises other problems. We need crowdsourcing because of the mass of data that is online: editor-driven local news is quickly becoming an impossibility. And the crowd is very good at voting up the most interesting stuff. The problem is that the most interesting stuff isn't always the most important.
Walter Lippmann, famed journalistic philosopher and New Republic founder, said in his seminal 1922 book Public Opinion, that he saw the growing mass of American readership as stuck in the "chaos of local opinions." He looked to a governing class of newspaper editors who could bring facts to light and organize them for a largely ignorant readership. The news, he thought, was too delicate of a concept to be "an organ of direct democracy."
While grossly elitist, it remains to be seen whether Lippmann's greatest fears will be realized by our emerging system of user-driven local news. Will we devolve into sensationalism and shallowness? Or will sites like NYC.IS become conduits for more informed citizenry?