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The Future of Newspapers: Digital and Hyperlocal

With a regional population of about 18,000, Chestertown, Maryland is better known for its colonial buildings than as a laboratory for the future of journalism. Yet the town’s only daily newspaper, the Chestertown Spy, may be just that: an example of where newspapers in America and beyond are headed. While the Spy takes its name from the town’s first newspaper, which first published in 1793, this modern day incarnation is strictly online, a newspaper without the paper. This move to ⁠paperless newspapers⁠⁠ is fueling a second trend: newspapers that focus in on an area larger publications have overlooked. ⁠Hyperlocal⁠⁠ journalism, as it is called, may cover a small town like Chestertown or a part of a larger city, like West Seattle.

Hyperlocal journalism is still journalism, and the topics a hyperlocal newspaper cover can affect readers⁠⁠ lives as much as what happens far away in Washington, D.C. or New York City. On its home page late last year, the Spy’s reporters were covering arguments over a proposed sewer line, tax credits for new businesses, and the economic toll unusually cold weather has taken on the town’s utility bill. An opinion piece addressed Chestertown’s relationship with the local college and another, by a school board member, argued that standards are slipping. The sports section covered that American religion, football, and the food and garden section had articles on poinsettias and cooking yeast rolls.

This content is available to Chestertown readers and, indeed, the rest of the world, without a subscription--the Spy doesn’t even ask for one. The paper gets by on banner advertising, a hard-working, low-paid staff, and a publisher, Dave Wheelan, who is working as much for love as for money, which doesn’t mean he isn’t as serious about his work as any New York Times reporter. ⁠We try to replicate, within reason, the same news expectations as a larger metropolitan area.⁠

Chestertown sits on the eastern shore of Maryland. The town is the county seat of Kent County, which has just 18,000 people, and, though just a 90 minute drive from the metropolitan centers of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington D. C., the area is far enough from those cities to go unnoticed by the major newspapers. Chestertown itself has just 5,000 people, and that was true, said Wheelan, 200 years ago. It was around that time that the region’s first newspaper, the Chestertown Spy and Apollo, started covering the area, and while Wheelan’s 21st century version isn’t a direct descendant, it works in the same tradition.

But why is the Spy online? ⁠First and foremost is timing,⁠⁠ Wheelan said. ⁠You don’t want to wait seven days to see the results of a local election.⁠⁠ Online also has the advantage of multimedia. ⁠You’re not just creating a newspaper online, you are creating a television station, a place where people can see and hear the mayor.⁠⁠ Online also provides more elbow room for coverage. ⁠With a planning or zoning issue, for example, a physical newspaper is constrained by the number of pages printed. An online newspaper isn’t--you can share files, blueprints, and other resources to create a rich database that contributes to the discussion. The more information you have, the better decisions a reader can make.”

Not all hyperlocal publications are exclusively online, but the financial advantages alone are so pronounced that online presence is all but inevitable. Conversely, not all online newspapers are hyperlocal, but some prominent American journalism schools have come to see hyperlocal coverage as laboratories for their students--a good way to learn their craft in this digital era.

Funding hyperlocal startups

Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab, a hyper local ⁠incubator,⁠⁠ heads one of the few organizations that have researched these small, highly focused publications. Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, J-Lab invests and nurtures experimental news operations that use new technologies to promote a more informed civic life. To date, the Institute has received more than 1,500 applications, a number that provides some measure of the interest in the hyperlocal phenomenon around the U.S. J-Lab has given $833,000 in awards to a small fraction of those applicants: 55 local news projects. The publishers, in turn, have raised additional money from other grants, as well as donations and advertising--the three major sources of revenue for hyperlocal websites.

Schaffer said the hyperlocal landscape includes some communities, like Chestertown, that once had a local, conventional ⁠print⁠⁠ newspaper, but no longer do. Other communities may have sprung up so quickly that they’ve never had a newspaper in the first place. A third category includes neighborhoods and communities within a city, such as West Seattle, that may feel overlooked by the local paper. In all three cases, when these areas do get coverage, the articles are not necessarily written for the people who live there. ⁠Unless a story from an outlying region is major, or at least unusual, it doesn’t get covered, and when it does, it is written for metropolitan readers, not the local residents,⁠⁠ Schaffer said. ⁠When a reporter ⁠parachutes in⁠⁠ and writes it for metropolitan eyeballs, it becomes a different kind of story.⁠

The community news sites that are emerging across the country are covering what might look like smaller stories from a distance, but ones that are vital to the people who live there. That vitality, she said, can make a big difference to civic participation. In a place with no reporting, politicians function with little accountability. With reporting, ⁠people see a politician who may have held his position for years and say: ⁠I could do a better job than that.’⁠

That reaction also characterizes some of the people who start hyperlocal sites in the first place. Schaffer characterizes many of them as ⁠civic catalysts,⁠⁠ often baby boomers already active in the community. Others are displaced professional journalists who are retired or were laid off, and are looking for another place for their talents. A third group is university journalism schools ⁠who are realizing that covering news in a nearby community can be an incredible learning laboratory for students, and in some cases, encouraging an entrepreneurial mindset.⁠⁠ Some of these newly minted publishers think of themselves less as journalists, than as activists. ⁠They don’t just want to cover their communities, they want to build them, and they want their coverage to reflect their care about the community, a practice that is often out of the comfort zone of traditional journalists. It’s not so much advocacy as sensitivity.⁠

She cites as an example a father in the community committing suicide. A traditional news organization would cover the story as it would any other, trying to interview friends and family, looking dispassionately for motives, signs of depression, and any other clues to why this happened. But a hyperlocal site, enmeshed as it is in the community, might be more cautious because the publisher, editor and reporter (who are sometimes the same person) aren’t looking at the father as the subject of a news story, but as a friend and neighbor. They may know the father’s high school age daughter since she was six. They may understand the pain, because they’ve known the family for ten years. They may even conclude with an intuitive sense that this story, which might lead the evening newscast of a local television station, doesn’t even belong online. ⁠You want the information out, but you don’t want to fracture the community getting it out,⁠⁠ Schaffer said. ⁠I think we are seeing entirely new forms of ⁠journalism⁠⁠ emerging in this space that is less conflict-driven, less about the scorecard.⁠

That principle may also hold true in covering civic events. In traditional journalism, what a politician says ⁠on the record⁠⁠ stays on the record, even if those words are instantly regretted. But in a community setting where a reporter and city councilman may see each other on the streets and pass each other in the aisles of a grocery store, that ironclad rule may be amended to read: ⁠the most important on-the-record quote is what people meant to say.⁠⁠ This new set of ethics, said Schaffer, may not have influenced entrenched reporters with a lifetime of habits to break, but the next generation may be more receptive. ⁠A lot of young journalists are leaving news rooms because they can’t stand what goes on.⁠

The big question: funding

No matter where it is practiced, hyperlocal journalism has one overriding concern: financial viability. How does a newspaper that is found only online, that serves, by definition, a small readership, bring in enough money to pay a staff, let alone a publisher? What’s the sustainable business model, the one that will keep the publication going for not just a year or two, but deeper into the future?

When J-Lab looked into this issue, the results, at first glance, seemed contradictory. On one hand, hyperlocal sites can sometimes get by on surprisingly little revenue, especially if the publisher isn’t depending on the site for his or her livelihood. Sweat equity can make up for a lot, donations and grants may fill in the rest.

On the other hand, J-Lab has begun considering longer term funding. Schaffer figures a site needs two years just to get up and running, to figure out the technology and the structure, let alone what kinds of stories prospective readers will want. Only after those readers are attracted will sustainable revenue streams--the kind that don’t rely just on volunteer labor and foundation grants--start to become clear. Once people see value in the site, they are more likely to donate money to keep it going. And once readership numbers go up, advertisers will follow.

Hyperlocal reporting is not a way to get rich, and Chestertown Spy publisher Dave Wheelan had no illusions. ⁠I knew I would have to make a living with a variety of different sources.⁠⁠ In his first full year, 2010, the Spy is running about $40,000 in advertising--much of it earned over the last six months. With 12 freelance writers and software development costs, Wheelan figures he’s invested about $50,000. He keeps overhead low while still paying his way at $25 a story. ⁠I’ve built a terrific staff of reporters and we’re all having fun. That’s important because the newspaper business is really hard. But everybody feels that we’re at a good level of quality. We do take on hard issues, but much of our coverage is celebratory. We bring out the richness in the community: people being recognized and profiled. We reinforce the reasons people moved to Chestertown in the first place.⁠

Teaching digital journalism

If new media and hyperlocal are the future of journalism, the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism is out in front. The school, part of the University of California at Berkeley, has been teaching digital media to graduate student journalists for more than 10 years. Students begin with a one-week digital training ⁠boot camp.⁠⁠ Then, while taking broader classes on the craft of reporting, they work at one of the school's three hyperlocal sites.--Mission Loc@l [the ⁠@⁠⁠ is intentional] covers San Francisco’s Mission District with English and Spanish language news. Oakland North covers the northern, more affluent portion of the city across the bridge from San Francisco. Richmond Confidential covers the city of Richmond, whose high crime and unemployment rates often overshadow the people who live there.

All three hyperlocal sites are run by students. ⁠We have made it a point to not hook up with local television stations or newspapers,⁠⁠ said Paul Grabowicz, senior lecturer and associate dean. Doing so, he said, would have brought with it the traditions and limitations of legacy media. ⁠We wanted these sites to be wide open to experimentation, and we want our students to take ownership, make the decisions, and build a brand from nothing.⁠

While a reporter and editor at The Oakland Tribune, Grabowicz himself developed an early Web site prototype for the newspaper. It was rejected, but he persisted, and Grabowicz now heads the school’s New Media Program. Digital media, he says, makes hyperlocal coverage possible. ⁠Digital media allows you to do coverage that is focused on a small geographical area without the huge costs of printing or broadcast.⁠⁠ While some newspapers remain profitable in small rural or suburban communities, ⁠it's difficult if you're starting from scratch to build a business model around print. Some online, local sites have spun off paper―but they usually come out sporadically and are just highlights of the digital version. Our Mission Loc@l hardcopy version, for example, feeds into a cafe society⁠⁠ where people read the paper while sipping their lattes.

The Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism first offered digital reporting training as an elective. Now, it is mandatory. ⁠Our presumption is that journalists will need a set of baseline digital skills,⁠⁠ Grabowicz says. ⁠While they aren't a requirement of every job opening, they are the skills in demand.⁠⁠ That's true across the board: for purely online publications like the Spy, hybrid newsprint/online publications--a category now covering most American newspapers--as well as broadcast radio and television. ⁠No matter what publishers are doing, the Internet is where people are going. Journalists need to engage the audience digitally because that's where the audience is headed.⁠

A rigorous digital curriculum

At the Berkeley Journalism School, the digital curriculum is varied, demanding, and a topic of continuing faculty debate--which is inevitable, given the rapid changes in technology. A J-school student graduating a couple of decades ago would have gone through a program familiar to Mark Twain, who began his journalism career in California. The digital skills taught today would have either mystified the great author or at least amused him.

At Berkeley, students learn the multimedia basics: audio and video, as well as the basic tools of Web design and customization: HTML and CSS. The faculty is still debating whether students should know JavaScript or the more Flash-oriented ActionScript―and how much. ⁠We're still struggling with that, but if you want to do data visualization, you are either grappling with one, the other, or both. Students don't necessarily have to be programmers, but they should at least be familiar enough with these technologies to know how programmers operate.⁠

Students must also figure out which of these media best serve the story at hand. A piece about a mountain climber might do well with video, while an analysis of the city budget might do better with spreadsheet-generated charts. Different stories lend themselves to different kinds of media, and Grabowicz does not think that one story should be told one way for audio, another for video, a third for text. ⁠The practice of producing 'equivalent' stories for different media is colossally inefficient―and is a reflection of how media was, not how it will be.

Then there are the obligatory social media skills, which are required across all media: an understanding of Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and lesser known services that may become the next big thing. Of course, students aren't starting from scratch. They probably know, for example, how to take a photo or shoot a piece of video with a cellphone and send it as a multimedia text or an attachment. In the United States, they probably will have had hands-on Facebook training from an early age. (Twitter, which skews to an older demographic, is a less likely skill.) ⁠But to move from all that to being able to put together an engaging story―that's a different set of skills that they don't necessarily pick up through osmosis,⁠⁠ Grabowicz said.

Those storytelling skills have served journalists since they were writing on papyrus. ⁠Writing skills sometimes get lost in the shuffle, but no matter what you are producing, in whatever medium, you need really it,⁠⁠ Grabowicz said. ⁠That's obviously true for print media, but you can't do a coherent broadcast story if you don't know how to write a script. If you are in the field reporting on a breaking story, you need to be able to write the story in your head. That's not any different than when I was a print journalist, where I had to be able to phone in a story―which meant constructing it in my head. Even if you mostly interview people for streaming media broadcasts, you still need to write an introduction―something compelling enough to get people to watch it.⁠

The fundamental things still apply, said Grabowicz. No matter what medium they are working in, they still need to go into the field, know what a good story is, know how to report it through interviews, research and fact checking, then write clear coherent sentences and paragraphs, and ultimately, a coherent narrative.⁠

Sidebar: The longer form

An open question surrounding digital media is what happens to long-form journalism: longer magazine articles and non-fiction books. In this digital age, will people continue to be willing to wade through all that print or are we headed for Twitter-size utterances? The question looms large for magazine publishers, some of whom are looking to the iPad as a way to charge for content. Others think that, e-readers aside, digital content inherently comes in short bursts.

The device of today that seems best able to handle all three―audio, video and text―is the tablet. While Grabowicz says the verdict is out for the tablet's future, he does think that people are using the device as they might a magazine or book―and therefore may look for different content, as a result. ⁠iPad reading may be more of a leisure time activity, as opposed to the frenetic news consumption you currently see on laptops and cellphones. Maybe that means that tablet users will be willing to spend more time on a story. And that's very important to quality, in-depth journalism. With conventional digital devices, people are just dipping into the flood of information, then moving on.⁠⁠ Researchers talk about the tablet as a ⁠lean back⁠⁠ experience, versus the ⁠lean forward⁠⁠ experience of a cell phone. Mobile phones are used at work and are good at producing quick look-up snippets of information. Tablets are used nights and weekends, and perhaps, on the train. ⁠I don't want to push this too far, because we don't yet have the dataset on people's behavior and what they're willing to consume on a tablet, but the potential is there, for long-form text and video, as well.

But if publishers look to the tablet for the future of their business, they may have to look beyond the iPad. Publishers and readers tend to think in terms of subscriptions. But Apple has so far insisted that iPad magazine content be sold individually, at rates at or near the hardcopy price. Compared with a subscription to the hardcopy magazine, which is typically discounted, iPad content can repel the very readers all parties are trying to attract.

In the future, look for a change in Apple policy, a publisher embrace of Android tablets, or both.

Sidebar: “Patch”ing together a hyperlocal network

Hyperlocal coverage in America is not just a homegrown business. A different business model has emerged, as well: Patch. Based in New York, Patch was founded and funded by AOL’s CEO and chairman, Tim Armstrong, who was inspired by the newspaper vacuum in his town, Riverside, Connecticut. Patch hires local reporters who know and are accountable to their communities, then provides the online guidance and infrastructure. Unlike the eclectic look of independently run hyperlocal sites, Patch newspapers have a homogeneous look: they are unmistakably siblings. Patch also enjoys an economy of scale when it comes to attracting advertisers. A single, friendly looking online brochure describes a suite of ⁠Patch Products⁠⁠ that are available across its sites, with the opportunity for a single advertiser to place ads across several of them.

According to the New York Times, Patch has invested tens of millions of dollars (including a $4.5 million investment by Armstrong) and is operating in 800 American towns. The traffic has been low, but is growing quickly. In an industry known for layoffs, Patch is hiring, arming hundreds of reporters with a laptop computer, digital camera, cellphone and police scanner.

Is this a good thing? Purists may have the same problems with the service as they do with Starbucks--a national corporation displacing locally owned coffee houses with a one-size-fits all solution. But given the state of print journalism, where community reporting is increasingly rare, those objections seem minor. If the work is good and the readership well served, and if the service can earn enough money to be sustainable--then Patch could be an invaluable contribution to American journalism. And if not, AOL at least gets credit for trying.