The realization of why I think community news is important struck me full force as I watched a Youtube video on the 30th anniversary of the first HIV case in the US. I wiped tears from my eyes as the speaker ended his private session in the HIV Story Project booth, gazed at the camera and said, “Thank you for the opportunity to share this.” What occurred to me is obvious–that what matters in local news coverage isn’t the presence of billions of little news sites running school board minutes and local jeweler ads. Community news needs to build community and put to work the growing number of online / social media tools out there to to help people tell each other stories that challenge our assumptions, call each other to action or inform our understanding of how other people live.
In the introduction of Rosensteil & Kovach’s Elements of Journalism, I was surprised to learn that the pre-curser to newspapers was a news ledger, placed at the end of the bar in a public house. Travelers would take the time to add an entry and read what others had posted. Ingenious. That’s technology at work: it’s understood, utilized, accessible and durable. Those books became the journal of record for a community. There were implied guidelines too, such as context and limited space. I’ve never seen one, but I can imagine there were probably hacks or vandals who added noise to the journal, but the technology still proved to be useful. What the video booth and the ledgers have in common is that they are simply the vehicle for one person to get a story to another.
Perhaps as we rethink news models, the focus shouldn’t be so much on geographical, but on creating the kinds of community spaces that will bring people of similar interests together and draw out meaningful stories or inspire meaningful action.
Barb Palser says in the “Hazards of Hyperlocal” in the American Journalism Review:
Other news organizations have launched and abandoned hyperlocal efforts over the years, some big like the Washington Post, others small and unknown. The managers of these projects tend to leave a common admonition to those who would follow: Hyperlocal is difficult, expensive and not for the faint of heart.
According to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, only 20 percent of American adults reported using digital tools to communicate with their neighbors or stay informed about community issues at least once in the past year. Only one in 10 reported reading a community blog at least once in the past year.
Maybe there’s a larger appetite for neighborhood news than the data suggest. But for people who are accustomed to centering their social interactions and news consumption on their personal interests, the write-ups of town council meetings, local theater events and public works projects typically found on a hyperlocal site might not seem any more relevant than the offerings of a traditional news site.
Yet people are sharing news articles with each other on Twitter and Facebook. They are developing online communication skills, finding communities that appeal to them and exchanging information. News organizations must figure out how to be flexible and foster these new ecosystems while exerting journalistic values on the contributions made by members who claim a stake in the community spaces we create.