Monday, November 10, 2008

Online Journalists Keep Local Reporting Alive

BOULDER, Colorado -- Like in most other places in America, the newspaper industry in my home state of Connecticut is in a sorry state. The Hartford Courant is the state's paper of record, but America's oldest newspaper has fallen on hard times. It is owned by the beleaguered Tribune Company, which is undergoing a massive restructuring; this summer, the Courant announced that it would be cutting its newsroom staff by 25%, and it has reduced the number of pages and cut back on expensive local reporting.

In my hometown, the New Haven Register remains the second-largest paper in the state, and it is still locally owned, by the Journal Register Company. However, JRC's stock was recently de-listed from the New York Stock Exchange, and its share price has since fallen below one cent. Despite serving one of the largest and most important cities in southern New England, the Register no longer has a full-time reporter covering the state capitol in Hartford.

But not to fear - local reporting is not dead in Connecticut.

Even though I live out of state, I like to keep up with what is going on back home, and the resource I most regularly turn to is not a regular daily newspaper, but an online one, the New Haven Independent. The Independent is a small operation with about a dozen staff members; they typically run three to five stories a day, and they do not publish on the weekends. However, The Independent has been breaking stories on a regular basis, beating out the more established publications, especially to stories coming out of city hall. The Independent has become so adept at getting scoops that they have raised the ire of the mayor's office. City workers have at times been specifically instructed not to talk to their reporters, and the city tried to fire two employees who were quoted in the Independent speaking out against the closing of a senior center. If they are pissing off politicians, they must be doing something right.

I really appreciate the paper's intense focus on local issues. On their site, you can sort their archives by New Haven's 24 different neighborhoods; I didn't even know there were that many. They also did some very admirable reporting this past summer about the rash of gang-related shootings in the city, and their police beat is outstanding. But perhaps my favorite piece is their weekly video blog with editor Paul Bass, "direct from our newsroom, otherwise known as my compost heap." Here's the latest installment.

The Independent is part of a growing number of online, locally-based news organizations that are not run for profit, but instead rely on grants and donations. The paper's founders also created something called the Online Journalism Project, which aims to
"encourage the development of professional-quality hyperlocal and issue-oriented online news websites. Sites like this one. We aim to accomplish that by helping stand-alone journalists obtain grants or other financing to develop local news websites meeting professional standards of fact-gathering, accuracy, fairness; by sharing information about this emerging medium; and by adding our voice to the debate over the course of online journalism."
The Independent is their largest project thus far, but there are other organizations that are attempting to reestablish local reporting and investigative journalism by creating a new economic model for journalism, or at least, one that has been mostly restricted to the arenas of public television and radio (though not just to PBS and NPR - other important outlets like Free Speech Radio News and Pacifica Radio also rely on donations and grants to maintain networks of independent reporters). ProPublica is one such organization. It has a newsroom in New York staffed with 28 full-time journalists dedicated to investigative reporting. The newsroom produces stories that are distributed to other news organizations free of charge; they also work with other outlets to produce segments for radio and television.

With the entire print media industry apparently going into a death rattle, is the non-profit model the future of journalism? It is hard to say - perhaps traditional print outlets will develop better online revenue streams and turn their fortunes around. But in the meantime, small papers are going under and local reporting - even in big cities - is suffering dearly. I am thankful that I have a resource like the New Haven Independent to turn to, and I hope they keep up the good work.

PBS' Newshour ran a segment back in June about this new type of newsroom, and you can watch it or read the transcript here.

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