Improving local news: ready, set, go!

I hope the debt-ceiling crisis gets solved. I hope the whole Rupert Murdoch mess ends up enhancing reputable standards in news gathering. I hope NCPR, in partnership with the Adirondack Community Trust, accomplishes great things with their exciting new grant, from the Knight Foundation.

The press release about the grant speaks of “news and information projects that inform and engage residents”. From my base in Ottawa, not knowing anything more than what’s been announced, I do wonder what that will consist of. No doubt there are going to be many components. Along with varying opinions what’s worth doing and what is not.

A group of civic-minded folks in Almonte, Ontario is trying something similar. They’ve launched something called The Millstone. With the goal of providing “an intelligent and informed source of news for Missisippi Mills, Almonte, Pakenham, Ramsay and Carleton Place”.  Veteran Canadian journalist Val Sears is the editor in chief.  According to this CBC article:

The goal of the Millstone is to provide a venue for public journalism and give readers stories they can’t find anywhere else.

Bruce Kingsley, who spent his career at CBC and is also part of the Millstone’s editorial board, said he hoped the news website would become known as a valuable public service.

“It’s an opportunity for the community to submit material, read material, participate in the newspaper if you wish, and it becomes a community exchange of information,” Kingsley said.

This type of engagement was formerly found in local small-town papers. But paper newspapers, that do a lot of reporting, seem to be something of a dying breed. (I’m leaving aside the chain-owned ‘local’ papers that get stuffed into my mailbox for free, the ones that have just a few articles of minor importance, along with page after page of ads.)

I think the motivation behind The Millstone is great. I wish it every success.

Still, there’s a lot going on here. The shift from physical delivery of information to electronic/web delivery. That’s good, right? I mean, news can be reported faster and the playing field becomes more level when no one has to shell out for a printing press and all the capital outlay for distribution. But is that output accurate, and unbiased? Or is it just faster?

Then there’s the detail that this particular effort is volunteer-based. I admire volunteers to no end. But when it comes to the real work of producing news, where is this heading? (Note: If I actually made a living as a journalist, this question risks being self-serving. But I’m very part-time. The ‘threat’ is more theoretical than personal.)

We already have fewer and fewer paid journalists, most of whom work for corporations that increasingly control many outlets at once. If one sector works for free – answering to their own personal causes – and big media empires answer first to making a profit…well, what sort of middle ground does that leave? And a disclaimer: of course there are plenty of blogs and news sites produced for free that have very high standards and make wonderful contributions. Of course not all reporters working for news outlets owned by big corporations have sold their souls and just answer to ‘the man’. But issues of accountability, objectivity and quality do arise.

Journalism today feels a bit like that Dickens line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. I think it’s nothing short of amazing – even revolutionary – that virtually anyone can generate news, create and publish a paper, and get it out to potential millions. But sometimes all this fresh content feel like drinking from a fire hose: messy and frustrating. As with any new frontier, competition, quality, public reaction and innovative adaptation will help sort the wheat from the chaff.

Watching all this unfold, I’d wager NCPR is going to stay in the wheat column. I hope young shoots like The Millstone thrive as well, and inspire similar efforts in other communities. Because ‘local’ matters, by golly!

I am curious, though. What do you want to see when it comes to good coverage of local/regional news and events? How should people and communities be integrated into this picture? How does the collective ‘we’ make sure these amazing opportunities aren’t wasted?

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3 Comments on “Improving local news: ready, set, go!”

  1. Gary says:

    In my opinion the key will be the planning stage. Get a variety of people involved and not just NCPR staff involved. Look at needs, resources and ways to evaluate. They have a pipeline for communications in place, take advantage of it. Work cooperatively with other agencies, maybe even schools.

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  2. Pete Klein says:

    I wish NCPR all the best but…..
    I guess my concern is this. Are we talking steak here or are we talking sizzle?
    Sizzle is great if you want to sell something. The problem with sizzle is there is nothing to digest.
    Too much has been made of both sides reporting. The problem with it is the old adage of he said, she said.
    While reporters should be as objective as possible, this doesn’t mean they need to report everything as though everything were of equal value. This leads me to say there is nothing wrong with having a viewpoint.
    Public input has always existed in the news business. It’s called letters to the editor.
    If the grant provides money to help pay for the operations of NCPR, I’m all for it. But I do worry it could be used to become too touchy/feely.
    Just report the darn news and know the difference between what is news and what is not news. Advance a cause or an agenda is not news. It’s free advertisement.

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  3. As the media continues to become more and more centralized with consolidation, there will be an increasing vacuum in the local news area. Organizations which fill that vacuum will be more and more important, whether they be traditional like NCPR or whether they be newer like Adirondack Almanack.

    People worry too much about whether online sources are credible or not, as though they are any more homogeneous than print sources. That will sort itself out over time. There was no grand pooh-bah who decreed “Washington Post: credible,” “New York Post: not credible.” It was a conclusion that people gradually figured out for themselves by using their own independent judgment. Over time, people will exercise that same judgment over online sources.

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