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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Power of Local Reporting

When my son was about 10 or 11 years old, he and few friends on the street decided that they would create a local newspaper. They called it The Glen Road Gazette. They used our ancient Apple Mac printer and they distributed it to about a dozen houses.

I thought it was delightful (but then I would, wouldn't I) because it had all the usual charming details of life on a quiet dead-end street where the kids played ball-hockey after supper until the games were called on account of darkness, and where they dug tunnels after a heavy snowfall. The "newshole" was filled with stories about missing cats called Cat, a fallen tree branch that missed the Smith's Volvo by INCHES, a planned potluck street party (fireworks after 9), etc. I think it lasted about six issues before summer arrived and the kids went off to little league try-outs, summer camp or vacation with parents.

But it was, I thought, well done and it addressed an age-old need that people might need to know what might be going on. It also addressed the deep instinct for people (both journalists and non-journalists) to see their names in print. "I'm in print, therefore I am." A simpler time, indeed.

I was suddenly reminded of the Glen Road Gazette by an email from Sean Tubbs of Charlottesville, Virginia. I met Sean in 2000 or 2001 when I visited the public television station there, WIVB in my capacity as NPR Ombudsman, to take part in a discussion about journalism, politics and other civic endeavors.

Sean was working for the public radio station then. But he decided to do something really bold. He and Brian Wheeler set up a local, online news service to cover the events in the Charlottesville area that they believed were not being given sufficient coverage by the local paper or the public broadcaster. It's called "Charlottesville Tomorrow". I think you'll agree, it's terrific. It's substantial, it's local and it looks great!

Sean says that the stories he pursues are often picked up by the other more established media in the area. In effect, he acts as a wire service operates (or used to) in providing tips and stories that can be advanced by other media.

My only concerns are about the nature of the relationships that a blogger like Sean must inevitably develop: can the information be reliable if one doesn't have a large established news organization backing them? How does the blogger have access? What about the trade offs that sometimes have to be made in order to get the story?
And what about corrections? How does the public input operate in this case?

These are all serious issues that bloggers need to address. But I'm confident that ways can be found to deepen the sense of transparency, responsibility and reliability of news sites like Sean's.

My guess is that this may be part of the future of local news. As other media feel the constraints of their economic models and their quest for ratings, the Sean Tubbs and Brian Wheelers of this world (and there are an growing number of people like them) will provide an important source of local information that is essential to an educated electorate.

So bravo Sean and Brian!

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