Notes about the Future of Urban Journalism, Part 2

Bloggers and citizen journalists don't have all it takes

As local newspapers die or shrink into specialized magazines and web sites—as they shed reporters, editors, librarians and other staff to cut costs and adapt to much smaller revenue streams—it seems reasonable to anticipate that cities will experience a net loss in coverage of local news.

But maybe that’s wrong.

It’s possible bloggers and citizen journalists will pick up the slack.

They are, after all, already a major presence in many localities. In fact, I’d be surprised to find a city anywhere that didn’t have a network of local-issue bloggers and citizen journalists. In some places, a few of these volunteers probably out-hustle and out-write the paid print journalists.

City residents also have access to lots local information through aggregator web sites like Yelp, outside.in, CrimeReports.com and EveryBlock.

(I’m ignoring local television news coverage, which is—as far as I can tell—universally very thin when not actively harmful. Local radio is a bit more promising, though many stations have been cutting or eliminating local news coverage for years.)

Despite bringing enthusiasm and talent to local news coverage, the volunteer online media corps and its aggregator helpers just don’t have—in my view—what it takes to replace what newspapers provide (or used to provide) for a city: a daily package of comprehensive and credible coverage of local issues and happenings.

It takes a lot of resources, skills and experience to put together such a package every day. Volunteers—even networks of them—can’t do it reliably every day for years and years.

OK, so volunteers can’t replace professional newspaper people. What about local news web sites—such as, for example, Chi-Town Daily News and Urban Milwaukee (both of which got picked as examples because I happen read them every so often)—that employ (and pay) professional reporters and freelance journalists? Aren’t these sites already doing what local newspapers do for cities?

In part, they are.

On some issues, they seem to be doing a better job of covering the news than their local newspaper competitors.

But in general neither—from what I can tell—has the volume, breadth or depth of coverage as their local papers. And neither seems able to fund in-depth investigative reporting, though Chi-Town Daily News—a non-profit organization—has done some focused, smaller-scale investigative reports.

Sites like these could evolve into what I’d consider full-fledged replacements for local newspapers. But because they’re not there yet, I think cities are likely to suffer from the loss of newspapers as we know them now.

If you care about cities, you should care about the post-newspaper future. You should—I think—not expect too much of bloggers and citizen journalists, but instead hope for--and perhaps help to build--a well-funded and professional future for urban journalism.

The résumé of an urban journalist

The sample résumé that follows illustrates (with slight exaggeration for purposes of emphasis) the skills, experience, education and interests the new breed of urban journalists should have.

Clark Kent
101 S. Hero St.
Metropolis, OH 00007
(555) 666-7777


Position as a paid reporter for a major city news and information hub.

Skill highlights

  • My writing brings clarity to complex subjects, and is fun to read.
  • I can conceptualize and create a variety of infographics.
  • I know how to create and use many kinds of databases.
  • My command of statistics, including multiple regression, is impressive.
  • I am a master of applications commonly used online.
  • I know how to get around a library, and how to search online.
  • I understand urban economics, government budgeting and the process of policymaking.
  • I smile and interview subjects melt, and tell all.
  • My ability to see through lies is amazing.
  • I am an excellent digital photographer, videographer and voice recorder.
  • I grok every point Jane Jacobs made about what makes cities tick.

Employment history

Daily Planet, Metropolis, OH
Part-time reporter, 2007 to present
Reported on variety of local government issues.

Justice League, Happy Harbor, RI
Research analyst, 2005 to 2007
As part of team, helped research and write a major report about overburdened juvenile justice system in Gotham City.

Legion of Super-Heroes, Comics, D.C.
Web designer, 2003 to 2005
Developed an online interactive timeline of all the Legion’s members and their exploits.


Bachelor of Arts, History, 1998 – Great Little Liberal Arts College
Master of Public Policy, 2001 – World Class State University
Journalism Training Certificate, 2002 – Mass Media Trade School

Personal information

Interesting fact: I was raised in Kansas, but born on another planet.
Favorite authors: Jane Jacobs, Edward Tufte and David Macaulay.
Hobby: aerial photography of cityscapes.


This is the second part of a series of posts I’m writing about the future of urban journalism. The next post will be about how to fund the kind of urban journalism that cities need and deserve. Read the rest of the series: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4.

(Photo from Flickr user arellis49. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


Toure Zeigler said...

Great Post. Im afraid in the future all news will come in the form of twitter updates.

Overall its great taht there is more information available then ever but how many of us bloggers are really making in depth analysis versus just making quick pop opinions. Even if we can and some do, newspapers still do the beast job of laying a full story out in detail and making a novice feel they have a grasp of a subject from multiple viewpoints.

Anonymous said...

Citizen journalism contributions used to be known as 'eye witness reports'. While technology enables more amateurs to contribute eye witness reports, there is no reason believe that it elevates the quality of reporting. I think your résumé is more or less spot on. I would, however, add to it:
- an unflinching ability to prioritise the news that is most important to the local readership
- possess gripping storytelling skills

Anonymous said...

(forgot to say...) great, thought provoking article by the way! :)