Thriving on a community

Posted: March 11th, 2009 | Author: Tyler Dukes | Filed under: journalism | Tags: , , , , , | View Comments

Image courtesy XKCD

When I worked as the editor of the student newspaper of N.C. State, my adviser once asked a question of my colleagues and I in a survey. It was something along the lines of, “Do you feel it’s the job of the paper to foster school spirit?”

While I don’t remember the question exactly, I do remember wrestling over the answer. The obvious reply, as a member of the independent press, is no. The newspaper is not a cheerleader and is not responsible for promoting the university.

But the Technician was the very definition of a community newspaper — one intensely focused on the group of students, faculty and staff of the university. As a community newspaper, it has a responsibility to help make that community better by equipping its members with the knowledge they need to make responsible decisions about the university’s future.

That meant exposing corruption, making public the debate about tuition and fee increases and criticizing highly paid coaches for failing to perform.

That same idea can be carried over to community news organizations. What’s more, that passion for local coverage has led to amazing success for some community news sites, even amid a recession.

But you wouldn’t know it from reading the work of former editor and technology blogger Mike Elgan.

In a post on Computerworld, Elgan writes about how technology is breaking down the concept of local, making “pandering to local community groups, small businesses, area schools and, above all, local listeners” an obsolete practice.

It’s time the so-called local media opened its eyes to the new reality: Nothing is local anymore. And it’s a huge opportunity. The new mantra should be: Cover local events exclusively, but for a global audience.

Sounds profound. Poignant. A good way of marrying what we’re seeing with technology with the true purpose of journalism: to provide information.

The problem is, Elgan is missing the point, and as it happens, the complete purpose of journalism. Borrowing from The Elements of Journalism, “The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”

That last part is important. “Information they need” is more valuable than just information. Providing that specific kind of information will create a more valuable product.

When you lose your focus on your community, you have a harder time trying to figure out what information is worth investing in. If you write for a global audience, as Elgan suggests, you end up alienating the people you want to connect with.

Elgan calls it “bigoted pandering.” I call it service to the community.

Now to be fair, Elgan isn’t arguing that newspapers and radio stations do away with the community model. On the contrary, he says, “Local media must focus all resources on the coverage of local events.” But his caveat is that this content should be tailored for the larger world.

Why is that exactly? To use his examples, what value does someone in Timbuktu find in community content from Lodi, Calif.? And why should community news organizations stop focusing on targeting a local audience and local advertisers when it appears to be working?

The husband and wife team behind the West Seattle Blog, for example, is earning in the high five figures in the middle of a recession because of their hyper-local focus on the West Seattle community — home to about 58,000.

Even our ads are perceived as more a community service … letting people know about businesses and services out there.

That success has come from Elgan’s very correct concept of devoting resources to unique stories and leaving behind his flawed logic of writing to a global audience.

The problem with his argument is that it’s contradictory.

A hyper-local focus creates value for the consumer of media, yes. But it also creates value for the advertiser looking to pay to support that media. The audience is much smaller, but it’s also intensely targeted to locals who are more likely to consume their products, making their (in these times limited) advertising dollars more effective.

Now I’m not denying that technology has broken down the barriers to consuming local content — Elgan is right about that. Someone in Timbuktu can by all means cosume media from Lodi, Calif., and that expands the audience and increases Web traffic.

But tailoring your content to a global audience is inefficient — it can alienate your audience and drive down value for advertisers, because they’re much less likely to sell to a global audience.

In terms of the business model, it’s a trade-off for advertisers — a smaller audience, but a more willing consumer.

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