Feb 16, 2011

Hello, 2012 presidential primary season. Will you be my friend?

Mmm, Iowa! Where the wind comes sweeping down the plain. The Buckeye State. Birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. And the traditional starting gate for US presidential campaigns.

Every four years, journalists descend upon Iowa, stalking would-be leaders of the free world as they shake hands, kiss babies and eat their weight in pancakes. However, the upcoming 2012 campaign season promises to have a hyperlocal twist to it. Arianna Huffington, newly appointed overlord to AOL’s content-producing properties, plans to use Patch.com editors to cover the election on a “granular” level, she told The Washington Post.

Huffington’s plan is genius: employ an army of already-embeds who won’t need lodging or driving directions, and let them lay the foundation for AOL’s larger, search engine-savvy campaign coverage. “We will have thousands and thousands of people covering the election. Covering the Republicans. Covering the Democrats. Just being transparent about it,” she said.

And that’s when my heart sank. Reporting on elections can be a major drain on hyperlocal news outlets, especially those with limited human resources. So how the hell are independent hyperlocalists supposed to compete with myriad minions of The Huffington Patch?

First, they can beat Patch to the punch. Indie hyperlocalists in states with high-profile primaries (Iowa and New Hampshire, for example), as well as those in the convention cities of Charlotte and Tampa, should immediately contact larger news outlets and promote themselves as location experts. If AOL can use its hypothetical Des Moines Patch editor (more likely, someone from its Seed content farm) to blanket the Iowa caucuses, surely The New York Times and CNN can pay Cedar Rapids‘ independent hyperlocalist to work the beat.

(Incidentally, hyperlocalists from Super-Duper Tuesday states are not shit out of luck when it comes to milking the campaign coverage. They can similarly promote themselves to NPR or some other large outlet as experts in their beat’s hot topic — unemployment, gay marriage, the effect of prolonged deployment on military families, whatever.)

Notice my use of the word “pay.” The time and energy required to cover a campaign deserve appropriate compensation from whomever is doing the hiring. National exposure will not fuel a hyperlocal news outlet while its resources are diverted to the campaign trail.

To earn that living wage, independent hyperlocalists must offer coverage that encompasses more than just the who, what and where. The material must deliver a distinct local flavor and offer unique insight into how political events and the populace interact. This connection with place, and the ability to drop a reader smack in the middle of it, will distinguish the independent hyperlocalist from a Patch editor or embedded big-media reporter.

Ultimately, if a hyperlocal news site can’t beat Patch’s campaign coverage, it should join it — sort of. Local Patch sites likely will create RSS (syndication) feeds for their campaign stories, which can then stream onto a hyperlocal news site’s sidebar. Thus, the independent hyperlocal site offers its readers a portal to political coverage without having to create content.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Carl Wycoff.

Sep 2, 2010

Color, coverage and confirmation

Just the other day, I told a friend via Twitter not to believe what “they” say, that one really can go home again. By that I meant a return to my native New York City after four years of working the hyperlocal scene in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. I never expected a guy named Lee and his gun-toting, bomb-planting, hostage-taking antics at Discovery Communications would send me back to Silver Spring, if only digitally.

Wednesday afternoon was one long tweet: conversations with friends and former neighbors who work in and around the Discovery building, and retweets of news updates from boots on the ground. Emails and Facebook messages came from larger news organizations, asking for any information I may have had on the suspect or Discovery’s past dealings with him. And I bitched a lot about theories and comments from unnamed sources being passed off as fact (more on that below).

Hindsight being twenty-twenty, and this being the digital age, accolades and criticism of the event’s news coverage surfaced immediately or in real time. Regional news startup TBD.com got well-deserved props for its streaming video and online coverage, with help from its television affiliate WJLA. (Both organizations live under the Allbritton corporate umbrella.) But some of the news coverage (not necessarily that of TBD or WJLA) got gruff from the Asian-American Journalists Association (AAJA), Slate magazine and me:

Was the suspect’s ethnicity relevant? As Wednesday’s events unfolded, the AAJA offered this advice via Twitter: Ethnicity should be reported only when relevant and when that relevance can be explained to the news consumer’s satisfaction. The organization later explained on its website that it objected to “Asian” being the only modifier used to describe the suspected gunman. “It’s doubtful that news organizations would say ‘Black man (or white man) takes hostages.’ This reminder is in that same vein,” the website stated.

I agree, though personally I didn’t see any headlines or tweets describing him only as an Asian gunman. But there was relevance on the hyperlocal level to identifying the suspect as Asian. A lot of Silver Spring residents knew Lee as the village idiot (arguably one of many) who two years ago staged a one-man protest against Discovery Communications and then paid homeless men and women to join his picket line. That same week, he started a near-stampede along the neighborhood’s main shopping strip as he tossed cash in the air to evade his paid-to-picket employees.

Describing the suspect as Asian was germane to the story and a big wink-wink, nudge-nudge to Silver Spring residents. Neighbors knew exactly who took hostages that day — there aren’t too many Asian men with an anti-Discovery agenda running around town — without anyone even saying the dude’s name, and without confirmation from the police (more on that below). Read the rest of this entry »

Aug 25, 2010

Getting a hyperlocal grip on international news

The other day I whined about the challenges of covering a multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual beat. Such diversity is a blessing (and I don’t use that term often), but all those story angles can shmear thin an already small newsroom.

It’s something that’s bugged me for a while, though it clocked me square in the face this summer. With a sizable Pakistani-American community here, larger news organizations — namely The Christian Science Monitor and Al Jazeera — tapped residents for their takes on relief efforts in Pakistan’s flood zones, development of a Muslim community center near the World Trade Center site, and the arrest of Faisal Shazad, a Pakistani American who confessed to planting a car bomb in Times Square.

All of them were good angles on national and international news stories, and they offered insight into one segment of the neighborhood. But as a hyperlocalist, would such stories be within the scope of my publication? Would I have to write similar stories around the zillion other immigrant groups in my hood — the Tibetan Americans’ take on China’s activity in their homeland? The Venezuelan-American reaction to whatever Hugo Chavez has to say? And on and on.

It’s enough to drive a hyperlocalist insane.

That’s when the Poynter Institute‘s News University came to my rescue. (For the uninitiated, News U offers journalists online training, some of it free, much of it cheap, nearly all of it good.) Its free, self-guided seminar called “Reporting Global Issues Locally” offered tips on how to tie international events with local issues, without driving a newsroom into the ground and without necessarily focusing on only one immigrant group.

First, the course suggested taking inventory of a beat’s ethnic groups, spoken languages and immigrants’ countries of origin. Done. Next was an inventory of a beat’s big industries. In my case, those are restaurants and specialty food shops; grooming services and general retail; medical services, thanks to a nearby hospital; residential real estate; and automotive sales and repairs.

Then the magic happened. The course listed five international-news topics that could influence news on a local level:

  • The wars and national security
  • Business and the economy
  • Immigration
  • Health and the environment
  • A catch-all heading that included religion, education, culture and sports.

And instead of just tying international stories with the local immigrants’ reactions, the course illustrated how these international events can truly impact everyone in the hood, regardless of their ethnic or national backgrounds. For example, international trade tariffs and product recalls can affect sales at local retail shops, regardless of which segment of the community patronizes those shops. Immigration reform can alter hiring practices across all local industries, whether it’s food servers for the hood’s restaurants, or doctors and nurses at the nearby hospital and its satellite facilities.

In other words, it’s not about the hyperlocal angle on international news. Instead, it’s about the international angle on hyperlocal news. Despite the neighborhood’s global roots, the fact is it is one cohesive neighborhood. Its residents might not share a common heritage or language, but they share the immigrant experience, life as Americans (legally or not), and in the case of my new beat, life as New Yorkers.

The course also discusses possible sources of information, but I haven’t gotten that far into it yet. I’ll save that post for when I get around to it.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user bondidwhat.

Aug 23, 2010

Whoever said it was a small world was a liar.

Getting my business chops together is a slow, painful process, but it’s happening. I’ve been reading about profit-and-loss statements and recently received free (yay!) legal advice on business structures. A summary of what I’ve learned will appear on this blog eventually.

While that’s cooking, I’ve started learning more about my hyperlocal beat and the niche my future online publication might fill. First, the statistical low down:

The neighborhood covers an area of about 1.5 square miles and contains more than 71,000 residents, says the 2000 Census. Sixty-six percent were foreign born and 80 percent speak something other than English at home — and I’m not just talking about Central and South American immigrants speaking Spanish. From personal observation, I’ve seen and heard people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; Nepal and Tibet; Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela; Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe; and a smattering from southern China, Thailand, South Korea and The Philippines.

Compare that with the beat my former publication covered: 22,000 people living within one square mile. Most of them were born in the United States, spoke English at home, and were either white or black. That small area and common language made coverage easy, and because most of the foreign-born residents were either Central American or Northeast African, it trimmed the number of international tracks I had to follow for those “local reaction to events back home” stories.

The diversity that makes my new hyperlocal beat so beautiful means I’ll need creative ways to gather, report and distribute the news. Right now, reporting and distribution seem to be the easy parts, as I’ve had some thoughts on that previously. The news-gathering part, on the other hand, will kick my ass.

Brainstorming on how to avoid that ass kicking will occur in the next few posts.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Samantha Decker.

Jun 28, 2010

The view from Denver

I learned quite a few things last week during the National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention in Denver. First, Denver is surprisingly flat. Second, its airport is actually in Nebraska, an eight-hour drive from anything.

Most importantly, I learned that traditional journalists have a lot to learn about new media, and new media has a lot to learn about traditional journalism. It’s easy to chalk up this mutual repugnance to arrogance, the “my medium is better than yours” argument. But it’s more complicated than that.

Traditional journalists (those in print and broadcast) turn up their noses at new media because they deem the quality of online content to be sub-par. They’re kinda right. Some producers of online content have displayed a lack of journalistic skill and editorial judgment, an inability to dig up original sources, and a sole purpose to drive page views and thus advertising rates. It’s embarrassing.

At the same time, those in new media brush off traditional journalists for their seemingly backwards view of how information should be presented and consumed. This too has some validity. Too many traditional news outlets have shown they don’t get concepts like transparency through linking, distribution and interaction through online social networks, and constructive discourse through moderated comments. It’s pathetic.

What traditional journalists and new-media producers share is panic over the news industry’s decaying orbit, as well as frustration in their hunt for a working business model.

My solution to this discord and angst is a swift smack to the back of the head. Responsible journalism is doable in the New World Order. Quality reporting has monetary value, but it will take creativity — not complacency or a reliance on the tired, failing advertising model — to cook up sustainable revenue. The public wants and deserves more than entertainment. Twitter and Facebook aren’t disposable time sucks.

Everyone’s got a dog in this race. The problem is, they don’t realize it’s the same damn dog scowling at its own reflection.

As always, the goal of this blog is to explore ways to make that dog stronger, smarter and faster without beating it into the ground or doping it with steroids. I’ll continue those explorations this week and throughout the summer.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Daniel Hoherd.