Gaping Holes at the Local Level

A few weeks ago, I was just getting ready to turn in for the night when I heard a loud noise come through the window of my apartment. It was one of those noises that people living in New York might have dismissed as background noise pre-September 11th, but I took notice of it and ran to the window to see what was going on.

So did many of my neighbors. As I clambered out on to my fire escape, I saw many of them craning their heads out of their windows to see if maybe a building down the block was the victim of a gas explosion or if a construction crane had dropped something heavy on a taxicab. I couldn't see anything, though, so I climbed back in my window and put NY1 on the TV. NY1 is my local cable news channel, and I expected that at any minute, a news ticker would scroll across the screen and tell me what was responsible for the loud explosion. No dice. I never did figure out what the deal was. I never saw anything in the papers or on the local news about it.

My hometown of Wading River, NY, used to be a small town, but now it's rapidly expanding. I founded a newspaper in Wading River nearly 10 years ago. Since then, the population has exploded. A new newspaper joined the two existing papers recently, but still there are gaping holes in local news coverage. The papers cover the local school board pretty well, but they need help in covering town, county and state government stories and issues. These are things that affect residents every day, perhaps even more so than the big national and international issues like the War on Terrorism or the conflict in Iraq. It seems many residents of Wading River know more about Iraqi resistance fighters than what's going on with the local planning board or the civic association.



Speaking from experience, it costs a good deal of money to set up a local newspaper. Printing costs are enough of a drain, plus there's the cost of paying reporters, writers and editors. But things are a bit different online.

With today's content management systems and databases, the cost of maintaining a news website and accompanying e-mail newsletter is a teensy fraction of what it would cost to print a few thousand 8-page newspapers a week. That fact itself is a great argument for moving local news outlets online. But we also know that, left to themselves, certain people will produce content and publish it for a variety of reasons (self-expression, entertainment, recognition, etc.). If this could be leveraged, local news outlets could conceivably have an army of reporters at their disposal, for little or no cost.

Does it seem like I'm gravitating toward a discussion of local blogs here? I am. But while blogs often give us interesting perspectives from individuals or small groups on a variety of topics, for these to function as a proper newsgathering and dissemination tool that can actually outperform other local news outlets, we need some additional tools:

  • Sophisticated content tracking - We need something that can find a local news story posted on a blog somewhere, categorize it properly and make it easy to find within minutes of its publication. For every minute a timely local news story goes unnoticed, it loses value.

  • Relevance tool - Monitoring the effects of decisions made at the state and local government level is a tough thing when you live in a small town like Wading River. Not only are decisions made at the federal level in Washington, but decisions made at the state level in Albany also affect daily lives in Wading River. Add to that all the local government stuff - county and town government, local planning commissions, civic associations, school boards. It gets so much more complicated at the local level. We need technology to help find the news stories that have relevance to us. A health alert about the increased numbers of Lyme disease cases from a hospital two towns away is very relevant, while a story about deer ticks from a blog in Pennsylvania may not be. To make for a compelling local news offering, we need technology to be able to tell the difference and determine a given story's relevance to our local population.

  • A viable local advertising model - I'm hearing more about local car dealerships, hotels and other business operations tapping into Internet advertising, but there are still a lot of negatives, including the need to spend significant money on online creative production and the expectation of performance-based payment. Perhaps what is needed is an aggregator from which businesses both small and large can make geo-targeted buys from micro to macro level. Something akin to a Yellow Pages type of organization that can leverage relationships with national, regional and local advertisers.

We figure this out, and we can not only tap into the local business marketplace, but also improve the quality of our local news coverage, making us all better citizens.

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