Skills for journalists in print and digital media

New formulas for local news

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Two of the more highly anticipated local news site start-ups of the year are getting closer to actually launching.

In Honolulu, Pierre Omidyar‘s Peer News has hired John Temple as editor and a start-up staff. At the same time, Allbritton Communications’ new site in Washington D.C., as yet unnamed, under the direction of former managing editor Jim Brady, has also been hiring and sharing some of its plans. Both sites are working toward second quarter launches.

At Peer News, according to blog posts by Temple, the idea is to provide ample background, some news coverage, and host a vigorous reader exchange. Reporters are “reporter-hosts,” readers are “members,” and the focus will be on a core set of topics deemed important to the community. Structurally, as Temple described it, the site will feature

…specific “topic pages,” the building block of our news service. The first pages they started building are what we’re calling structural topic pages, things you’d need to know before you can frame any related issues. So, for example, how government is structured and how it works. Where the money comes from and where it goes. Or who owns the land in Hawaii and who regulates it. That might sound a bit like the stuff of civics class, and it is, but we want to do the work for our members so they don’t have to go digging through piles of data to find what they’re looking for. What we’re doing isn’t just data collection, although there’s some of that. It’s connecting the dots for people so they can focus on an issue at hand but quickly grasp context if they need it.

Brady says his site will be a mix of the high-end regional news stories and neighborhood-level news, data, and connections, foregoing the broad middle band of traditional news coverage.  The site will for now also sidestep original education and business coverage and attempt to aggregate that content. Geocoding will be a primary feature for searching and sorting information. Speaking to PoynterOnline, Brady said:

“If you look at the past, there are some sites that just tried to do the community angle, there are sites that just tried to do the data angle, there are sites that just tried to do the original reporting. The truth is, I think that for a local site to be effective, it’s got to be a mix of all those things.”

Early glimpses of the two sites’ content plans are telling, both for what they want to offer and what they will not. Peer News wants to be the place people in their community come together, interact, and perhaps seed greater civic engagement.  Brady’s sees his site as providing real time information that people can go out and use in their daily lives.

At first blush, neither site seems to place much value on storytelling. (Brady said: “…a lot of what is in the metro section still falls in the category of ‘human interest story’ — things that are really strong pieces or good reads, but less and less of it is what really matters like how you live your lives on a daily basis in the city.”)

It may fall to the members of Peer News and the many community bloggers Brady expects to engage on his site to tell revealing stories. Both sites might then find how great storytelling is at the heart of civic engagement, as stories remain the basic unit of communication between people about the things that matter most.

Writing in the latest New Yorker magazine, Peter Hessler describes his return to the United States after years living in China, and the striking difference in how stories work in the two cultures. In China, he observed, people were very curious about facts related to America. In the U.S., people did not care to learn that much about China.

At times, the lack of curiosity depressed me. I remembered all those questions in China, where even uneducated people wanted to hear something about the outside world, and I wondered why Americans weren’t the same. But it was also true that many Chinese had impressed me as virtually uninterested in themselves or their communities. That was one of the main contrasts with Americans, who constantly created stories about themselves and the places where they lived.

Hopefully new models for the public commons will also have space for stories.


Written by mroberts8

04/16/2010 at 6:15 pm

Posted in Managing, Newstraining

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