Friday, April 27, 2007

This old engine makes it on time...

This post should have gone up last night after my peaceful arrival home from a day trip to Newark, New Jersey. But my arrival was not peaceful. I had left my car parked in the BWI train station garage with its lights on. The battery, obviously, was dead. I cannot be held responsible for things that happen before 7 am.

I’m having trouble finding words to begin this post, and gliding past the windows of this Metroliner, the scenery of central New Jersey isn’t helping.

Oooh. This is a nice town.

Sorry, I’m easily distracted and there is little I enjoy more than watching landscapes roll by.

Anyway, I don’t want to write about trains or windows or Jersey. I want to write about newspapers. Yippee!

As a former community reporter and a current citizen journalist, I’m keenly aware of the important role community newspapers, like those produced by Patuxent Publishing, play in local affairs. Indeed, I’ve talked about this from practically day one of this blog.

In our media saturated society, news tends to find you. Coverage of national and even state issues is practically everywhere: television, radio, print and online. When it comes to community affairs, however, a local paper is pretty much your only source.

But while local rags share news, they also promote civic engagement and enhance democracy by providing a forum for discussion and a springboard for local groups to advocate and organize. Much of the success of Save Merriweather was due to the fact that local papers provided a microphone and a measure of legitimacy to what was really just a couple of guys asking questions.

At their best, local papers are vital components of a healthy community. The problem is: They aren’t always at their best, as in the case of the recent Columbia elections.

(For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on the Columbia Flier, which we “need” more than the Sun, the Post or the Examiner.)

If I may, here is my list of grievances surrounding the Flier’s election coverage:

  1. Only one real story for each Columbia Council race.
  2. No coverage of candidate forums.
  3. No coverage of village board races.
  4. Endorsements issued only days before the elections – long after most ballots were mailed in – and based on answers to a set of five questions without actually meeting any of the candidates.
By devoting so little time to the races, reporters were forced to cram too much information into each story (background, experience, positions, and proposals). Compounding this shortcoming is the fact that every story needs a hook, which basically reduces each race to a sound bite competition.

In CA elections especially, there is a chronic information deficit. The races don’t involve political parties. Few candidates have websites. And there’s only one debate. Most voters aren’t even aware of who’s running (or even that there’s an election).

I’m sure we can lay some of the blame on residential apathy. While that’s a whole ‘nother story, it is in some way related to media coverage. After all, if you can’t get the local paper to care enough to adequately cover a race, what do you expect of under-informed residents? (I don't think protections for a free press were listed first in the Bill of Rights on accident.)

Now, I’m not trying to blame my loss on the Flier. And I’m not just writing so I can whine about the media, even though such whining is what made blogs what they are today. Rather, I’d like to offer a suggestion.

Underlying this discussion is the reality of limited resources. The Flier, after all, is a free paper and it’s supported almost entirely by advertising revenue. To be sure, space in all newspapers is at a premium, but this is particularly true in those supported by ads.

Nevertheless, in my reporting days, I was the only writer for a paper covering a town of 5,000 residents (I also did some county government and schools reporting and our total distribution covered a region of about 15,000). Meanwhile, the Flier devotes one, perhaps two reporters specifically to Columbia (county and schools are covered by others), a city of over 90,000. The ratios are a little off, no?

(Disclosure: My coverage of a local election may have been extensive [at least one story each week over the course of the two-month campaign], but it was not perfect. However, that, too, is a whole ‘nother story.)

On the face of it, more reporters focused on Columbia seems like a reasonable approach to filling the information holes. But that’s a very old way of doing things, and times they are a-changin’, baby.

Blog triumphialists like to say bloggers are going to take over the media. Gone will be the days of centralized news reporting and dissemination. They’re wrong. Mostly.

Many blogs lean heavily on news organizations to provide them with source material to write about, hence the beauty of the hyperlink. While reporting requirements on things like presidential campaigns, foreign wars and natural disasters are likely too onerous for one (or even a small collection) of bloggers to cover, village board meetings, candidate forums and other community events certainly aren’t.

Of course, the capability of doing something does not automatically lead to the desire to do it. Otherwise, I’d be going to and writing about a lot more meetings. If, on the other hand, I was getting paid…

But this isn’t about me making more money (well, maybe it kind of is). It’s about incentivizing a pool of latent resources (the writers among us) to act for the benefit the community, the Flier and most importantly, themselves.

So, after all that, here’s the pitch. The Flier should pay freelance writers to cover local meetings and issues that would otherwise be ignored. Don’t bother printing all of these stories in the paper (only the good/important ones), but post them online with links to relevant resources (i.e. agendas, meeting minutes, etc.). Because most readers still like words on dead trees, perhaps they could include snippets of the online stories from the past week in the print edition.

I’m guessing for the cost of a single additional reporter, the Flier could post five or six more stories a week. Plus, they wouldn’t have to pay for benefits. Win-win!

Since I don’t have any clout at the Flier (obviously), I’m basically just throwing out an idea here. Maybe I’m crazy and my ideas doomed to fail (or worse, be ignored).

But what else am I supposed to do on a train bound for Baltimore?

(Woo-Hoo! Philly!)

11 comments:

Jessie N said...

Re your "pitch" that the Flier should pay freelance writers to cover local meetings ... right on!

I recently had a conversation with a Flier editor and suggested that it was perhaps time for traditional print media to begin working in tandem with citizen journalists with online posting of community news.

I like your idea even better! Paid writers to cover the small local news for which 1) there just isn't enough room in a print pub and 2) just ain't that interesting to most folk reading the paper.

Anonymous said...

Jesse,

If you're the blogger from Columbia Hometown, then I'm thinking your requirement is that no one over approx 40 year of age need apply to do the writing.

Dont' apologize. As you said, it's part of the permanent digital record.

Anonymous said...

Guess I'm one of the 'geezers' over 40 that is so ignorant as to not be 'of the digital age'. Wow. Volumes were spoken there.

Fortunately, I still read "data".

Jessie of Hometown Columbia said...

Hey, Anons Above (I can't tell if you're the same person or two different Anons), I'm above 40. 43 actually, which I'm pretty open about, even in my various online profiles.

The 13er gen (born 1961 - 1981) are better digital data readers, as a generalization, than Boomers or the Silent Gen. It's just a matter of life conditions and when 13ers grew up.

How utterly silly that I am going to say this here, "Yes, actually, I am the Jessie of Hometown Columbia" (in clarification of your question, Anon 3:37). But SuchAnon would have known that had SuchAnon simply clicked on the hyperlink found on my name, as it links directly to Hometown Columbia.

Duh.

___

And keeping on my earlier point: Ian, I like the way you think. I really appreciate your commitment to citizen journalism. I'm sorry to use your blog to clarify such silliness above, but the SuchAnons addressed me here, rather than where I can be most logically found: on my own blog. Someday they'll learn to read data, and not just words, me hopes.

Rock on, Ian!

You're one of the greatest assets Columbia has, imho.

nottocritizebut said...

Jessie,

duh < civility

Anonymous said...

fwiw,

despite your claim of silliness, the anon comments above weren't wrong to respond in this comment thread, as those comments were relevant to both the post and jessie's comment.

and anyone can use whatever hyperlink they choose, can't they, making it nonconclusive that just because that's where the link points that any given comment is written by the author of the linked content? so, i think the dismissive duh was inappropriate, especially for one dispensing civility advice (which isn't a bad thing to do). Glad to see you realized that just a moment ago.

that along with your post here being labeled jessie n and many of your posts there being labeled miss newburn, the anon commenter was right (perhaps overly careful) to not assume so and qualify their comment accordingly. your recent blog post did request pseudonymous consistency, didn't it?

regarding what i understand as your opinion of the value, or lack thereof, of anonymous posting, you may want to give it further thought. there are many legitimate reasons for doing so, demonstrated throughout our history, including public published debates at the times of the american revolution (franklin was one such anon poster), some of the federalist papers when our constitution's structure was being publicly debated in the press, and recently as, I believe, when hayduke initially penned this blog anonymously.

Jessie N said...

Oh, Anons ... Dear, dear Anons,

Y'all got all mixed up n stuff in who said what, where, when and why. The thread above just don't be makin' no sense when people don't know who is speaking, who is saying what and to whom. That's my opinion, dear Anons. And I own it. I invite you to do the same.

___

And, back to Ian's post and my original comment. But, golly dang it: What do other people think of Ian's idea that the local papers pay writers to cover hyper-local news and publish it online only?

Anonymous said...

Jessie < civility

Anonymous said...

Jessie- if Hayduke allows anonymous posts on his blog, why is this any of your concern?

If you don't believe in anonymous posting, then don't allow it on your blog. This is a fine policy, one I endorse wholeheartedly. But to come to someone else's house and enforce your own particular rules is a little heavy-handed.

I see no problem with anonymous posting, so long as it is respectful in tone. In this day and age, I don't blame people for not wanting their name floating around on the internet. It isn't a matter of "owning" your opinion. It only takes being stalked once to send someone behind a wall of anonymity.

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