Notes about the Future of Urban Journalism, Part 4

Is this the post-newspaper future of local news?

What might a good, post-newspaper local news organization look like? What content would it offer? How would it be staffed and funded?

As market resources dwindle and online news consumption increases, producers of local journalism will experiment with a variety of forms. It’s possible we’ll all be getting our local news from bloggers. It’s possible newspapers—looking and acting like magazines—will survive as a viable form. It’s possible local public radio stations will become the primary local news organizations—with radio, Web, print and video offerings.

I don’t know enough about how online advertising works, about the costs of news production or the habits and preferences of news consumers to predict what’s likely to succeed newspapers. But I do know cities will suffer if there’s no good local journalism of the right scope, depth and frequency.

I also know I’ve been daydreaming about what the future of urban journalism might look like. Here are some highlights.

There’s a fabulous, ambitious online news site. Most of what you got from a local newspaper, you’ll get here: news and feature stories about all things local—politics, business, crime, culture and sports. You’ll find obituaries and weather forecasts, too. Photos. Video clips. It’s updated 24/7/52. What you won’t get here is national and international news from wire services. This is all local. The site is uncluttered, easy to read and navigate, and contains only a few discreet, non-up-popping ads. Every article and every photo are easy to print, and there’s free access to the archives. This site is the news organization’s flagship site, and it links to all the content described below.

A real newspaper for Sundays. For old-fashioned newspaper readers, this is the real thing: news printed on paper, available at newsstands or delivered to your door. While this paper contains a summary of the week’s news, its serious fare is mainly devoted to providing in-depth analysis and background on major local issues. But Sunday reading can’t all be serious, which is why the paper contains lots of cartoons and other interesting and fun stuff to read. All the paper’s content—except for the peppermint scent of its entertainment section—is available at the flagship site, too. The paper is free, although there is a charge for home delivery.

An audio-visual department. Which produces audio and video supplements to the news content, but also creates stand-alone documentaries about local places, people and issues. The digital documentaries—some of which use computer generated animation—are also used at public forums sponsored by the news organization and are broadcast on local radio and televisions stations.

E pluribus, opinion. There is no official editorial position of the news organization. But there are plenty of regular columnists and invited commentators. Most of these opinion writers are locals, but experts from outside of the community are frequently asked to comment on or provide advice about local issues. Site editors frequently post collections of downloadable background materials and links to hot opinion topics.

A city guide like you’ve never seen before. This guide doesn’t list restaurants and bars. It doesn’t describe local shopping districts. It’s a power guide, and what it does is explain the city’s formal (government) and informal (lobbyists, interest groups, activists, opinion leaders) power structure. It summarizes the key issues facing the city, and profiles the major people and groups involved with those issues. The guide offers lots of advice from battle-tested activists—locals and outsiders—about how to get city hall to listen. It’s available in print and online. Both versions are free, and the print version is mailed to every registered voter in town.

Users contribute content and feedback. While the professionally produced content is carefully distinguished from content produced by users, user-generated content and feedback is everywhere. Comments on articles. Polling on issues. Ranking of articles. Frequent requests for story and photo ideas. Posting of user generated photos and video clips. Reports on what local bloggers are saying. As part of the opinion pages, there’s a “soap box” section that allows anyone to post comments about anything of any length, subject only to minimum civility standards.

It’s funded a lot like public radio stations are. Generous local philanthropists and hugely successful membership drives provide the bulk of funding. The online news site and the Sunday paper both run ads, but the number and size of the ads are minimal in compared to current commercial newspapers and their Web sites. Firewalls separate the revenue side from the editorial side. Everybody involved with this news organization regards local news as a vital public service, not a moneymaking enterprise. (Yes, there’s a bit of snobbery about that.)

Produced by city-loving professional journalists. Because it takes a lot of resources and expertise to reliably produce good journalism—and this includes everything from news briefs to in-depth articles, from photos to info graphics—this news organization employs professionals. But not just any professionals. Apply here only if you have some talent, and can honestly claim at least these three things: 1. Cities baffle and intrigue you, and you want to figure out how they work; 2. You like complexity, but you really like explaining complicated things in an accessible and witty way; and 3. You love cities, even if it’s sometimes a tortured love.

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Well, that was my latest daydream about a possible local news organization in a post-newspaper world. I’d like to know how others see the future of urban journalism. Please add your predictions, your daydreams as comments to this post.

This is the forth--and final--part of a series of posts about the future of urban journalism. Read the rest of the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

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


Anonymous said...

We've been discussing the demise of old journalism on our blog the last couple days, and I've linked your series in the comments just now. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the series. Some have suggested that blogs and the like could take over local news gathering, but I haven't seen much development on this front locally (Edmonton), and like you, question whether they could treat the topics with the background and depth we've come to appreciate from good journalism. It will be interesting to see how your ideas will play out, especially in smaller markets.