This strays quite a bit from my normal beat here on this blog, but I wanted to mention a topic we had the opportunity to discuss in our Digital Storytelling class at Northeastern University today and that was the idea of ‘hyperlocal’ journalism – outlets that are dedicated to serving a specific geographical town or city area (different from the so-called mainstream media). Our class had the privilege of speaking with Paul Bass, a renowned digital journalist credited with starting the highly successful New Haven Independent and corresponding radio station WNHH.
The publication is solely online but features a wealth of multimedia coverage, including video production and online podcasts of their radio content. The slogan of the publication when you search for it on Google is “It’s Your Town. Read All About It,” and that’s a pretty good summary of what the Independent offers residents of the greater New Haven, Connecticut area (famous for housing one of the ivy league creme de la creme, Yale University). They cover just about anything and everything you could want to know about your hometown, from crime to government and human interest stories in between. One really cool feature is a sidebar link on the homepage to SeeClickFix which is an online community reporting tool that allows residents to post issues (i.e. pothole problem near 201 Pruder Lane) and other residents and local officials to see those and help fix the solutions (hence the catchy title).
It’s a valuable resource for New Haven-ians (not sure what the residents there call themselves) but it’s a very unique one in this day and age. These types of ‘our town’ outlets used to be a staple in every major town and city in America not even 20 years ago, but have been dying out at an alarming rate due to decreased demand for print. In Boston where I attend school, even the Globe fell prey to this phenomenon when they decided to end the “Your Town” section of Boston.com, which used to provide an outlet for such hyperlocal stories to be published. Bass explained how their business model was able to flourish despite languishing interest in print publications, by using an online platform and relying on grants and outside funding to support staff journalists.
It got me thinking about my own hometown publication, The Chapel Hill News, which is a local free print weekly (delivered to the front doors of all Chapel Hill residents) owned by the larger regional publication The News & Observer. While the N&O services the entire ‘Triangle’ area (Chapel Hill, Durham and our NC capital Raleigh), Chapel Hill News is wonderfully centric to my community, focusing solely on town news (community projects, crime and announcements). It also features on a regular basis highly insightful, poignant and well written columns from the staff writers (that can be anything from funny anecdotes to soliloquies on our rabid college basketball season). Of course I’ll admit that when I was a kid I went straight to the comics section, but I really began to value its work as I got older and actually began reading the whole paper. I valued it even more after I went away to college, and felt oddly comforted to see its presence on my dinner table when I would come home. The editions have become increasingly thinner over the years, as presumably less and less people read their news on hardcopy, but it makes me wonder what remedies might work for Chapel Hill going forward to ensure it continues to remain in print as the industry declines. I cannot stress how important hyperlocal journalism is, whether you live in a major city or a rural town in the middle of nowhere, because it invites you into the lives of the people in your community in a way no other medium can. Both reporters and readers alike need to think about how we can all support our community press as we enter a new digital age.