Yesterday, Patch (the hyper local news publisher funded by America Online) launched a Westwood, Massachusetts site–the 11th town so far in Massachusetts. I met the editor and am impressed that they are making an effort to cover the news in this town of 15,000–potentially filling the void left when the Daily News Transcript stopped being daily. A few people have asked me what does this mean for my site, WestwoodBlog.org?
The short answer is that is a source of more news and that’s good. Paul Gillin analyzes the Pew Research Center’s report on the differing priorities of bloggers and journalists and observes how bloggers need the mainstream media to provide source material for discussion. Although I have probably done more “original reporting” on my site than a typical blog, my goal has always been to stir up conversation and share information–not to be a reporter or investigative journalist. The site is a service for residents–to empower them to post their own news.
I think that local connection to the community is what is missing in most news coverage. You can send a reporter to every meeting of every board and commission, but when you don’t live in the community, you don’t see or hear what people are talking about and you don’t develop a sense of what matters. The news reporters can find stories–and tease out the facts and events or what is going on, but there is no feedback. Comments on news stories are not really participation because the story has already been written. Conversations on blogs are ongoing discussions. Blog posts in the form of citizen journalism can be biased–but that makes them better in some ways because they represent not what an outsider observed, but what a resident experienced.
Blogs and news, proceeding independently, are unsatisfying. The blogs can’t cover everything and can degenerate into opinionated diatribes. News stories can miss the context and move on to the next story. But together, these forms of media can create a “news ecosystem” that is mutually supportive.
A number of citizen contributions on my blog have led to news stories. In one case a resident blogged about the preservation of a school building–and then, a few days later, was interviewed and quoted in the newspaper. Another posted an article about a school music program being cancelled due to budget cuts–and again, ended up quoted in a mainstream news story. In many cases, I post articles that direct people to more specific stories in the media or to resources on the town website. As content contributors and community participants we share in the value not of any one source of news and information, but in the evolving ability to participate through this medium.
Yesterday, New Jersey hyper local blog Baristanet announced it was expanding to cover three additional towns where the New York Times has withdrawn from the local print publication market. It will be interesting to see how Maplewood Patch and Baristanet compete, coexist or cooperate. But whatever the outcome…print left town.
I think the best outcome here will be a sort of “confederation” of content. I wish I had the time and resources to create something like Baristanet–to pull together the independent voices of writers and residents not only in Westwood, but in Dedham, Norwood, Walpole, Milton, Canton–something I would call “Neponset News.” I think several sites like this could be destination sites–like Universal Hub in Boston–where people start–and then find what matters to them via links to source material (news) and community perspective (blogs). But I need to find a job.
Most of the hyper local news initiatives like Placeblogger and Outside.in start from a “tell me where you are” perspective. I will never go to some generic web site and enter my zip code as a means to find out what is going on in my community. I am unimpressed by technology-driven sites that just pull a bunch of localized data into one place. I am disappointed in sites that crank out a templated advertising vehicle for every town. But if regional hyper local sites can develop clear, localized brand identity–they can become destination sites that informally mediate the discussion of what matters in the community.