The future of media - locally and not

Posted by Ryan Jerz on Wednesday October 4, 2006.

Michael Kinsley has a piece in Time (that I happened upon via Digg) about the future of newspapers. I posted a short piece on it at the J-school’s graduate program blog, but I wanted to expound on that piece here a bit. It’s obviously a topic that we discuss occasionally in my program, and it’s one that indirectly is of humongous interest to me.

Kinsley touches on a few points about blogs that we seem to see all too often in the media and I see when discussing them with people who take an interest in such things. I realize he’s trying to be both funny and poingnant when he uses language like, “random lunatics riffing in their underwear,” and, “there is room between the New York Times and myleftarmpit.com,” (not real, so don’t bother) but it really only means that he’s discounting bloggers and what they add to the conversation. I’ll be the first to admit that I dislike the echo chamber effect that so many blogs create. I also dislike that there are so many that are so mundane that people refuse to take blogs seriously at all. That stuff certainly isn’t helping the case of bloggers, but Kinsley certainly isn’t making much of an effort to look beyond those, is he?

In talking about newspapers, Kinsley mentions that they happen to be jumping on the bandwagon of blogs at a pretty impressive rate. That’s all well and good, but let’s be honest here. He says the word blog with disdain in the context of regular people, but uses it simply as the latest buzzword when talking about the newspaper companies that have entered the realm. I’m almost wondering if he understands the significance of what he’s saying. On one hand, blogs are just an annoying means of self-effusion that shouldn’t be taken seriously, but on the other hand, the big, important newspaper people are climbing on simply for the sake of their own survival. Is he trying to say that blogs are now important because the newspapers have decided to bless them with their presence?

We’re at a pretty important crossroads here. We have journalists, like Kinsley, who have long held a position that lowly citizens could only aspire to. Only that position isn’t so distinct anymore. It’s slowly being reeled in by those same lowly citizens who once had to sit on their hands while waiting for the news to come forth from the grand disseminator of information each morning. We don’t have to do that anymore. That point brings me to a conversation I was a part of recently. I wrote briefly about it here. One of the questions I asked the guy was what makes him – a journalist – capable of his reporting and me – a blogger – incapable. His answer, simply, was “show me.” I wasn’t willing to let that go, so I pushed. I asked him what sets him apart from bloggers besides the fact that he has a Pulitzer. After a bit of jostling, his response was that he’s able to travel and investigate for weeks on end. So there it was. Journalists are capable not because they are any better necessarily, but because they’re paid to do it. They have a budget that people who work in other jobs do not.

Where does this crossroads take us? While Kinsley is writing about the national political scene when he talks about blogging and what blogs are doing, I think he’s missing another key point. Unless some interested party starts to put up major money to fund bloggers that cover national issues like the newspapers, bloggers stepping into that market won’t happen anytime soon. Plus, if a funder, whether it’s a corporation or individual, starts pouring money into blogging, doesn’t that make the blogging exactly like the newspaper organizations? What would the difference be? I don’t think there would be a difference. And the key element to what I’m arguing is that a difference is necessary. The future of blogging is at the local level.

Held up as a standard for local blogging is H2OTown, which is based in Watertown, Mass. The site is devoted to covering neighborhood issues in the area that would never get picked up by the local paper. Another benchmark is The Northwest Voice, out of Bakersfield, California. The Northwest Voice is a very good looking site that focuses on the northwest part of Bakersfield. It has articles written by all kinds of people, a close tie to community events, and a social network of sorts, where you can look through profiles of “your neighbors.” It’s a fine standard, indeed. Locally, just about the only community site is Around Carson. Scott Schrantz, who runs the site does a fine job at it and has kept it up despite what seems like a lack of interest by the rest of the community. When I say there is a lack of interest, I mean simply that the site hasn’t been embraced fully by people in Carson as The Northwest Voice has been in Bakersfield. Around Carson will get there as long as Scott can handle keeping it up.

Reno is sorely lacking in any sort of community site setup. Reno and its Discontents started with exactly this idea in mind, but has sadly deteriorated into what I can only describe as RenoKos. I realize it’s election season, and I realize that Myrna is not passive, but is covering national politics just about every day helping to build a community site? I don’t think so. I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt and say that time constraints make it almost impossible to build the ultimate community site. Plus, there is a lack of interest from the community there, too. The site has a ton of regular readers, but very few have stepped up to offer their own time by posting on topics that interest them locally. So the whole thing can’t be blamed on one person. Maybe this community can’t sustain a site of that nature, and they’re all destined to become more personal sites that occasionally discuss local issues than stay true community sites.

I can’t see myself starting any site that I would call “community” anytime soon. Again, the issue becomes time. I just don’t have the combination of enough interest and time to do the job properly, so I’m staying away. Plus, I’m currently working on a few things in school that will be put to use when the time comes to really roll one of these out. The work I’m doing on the Tahoe area will be applied to the Reno area and I think the site will start with a lot of useful information that will grow. But that’s down the road – most likely after the legislative session, which will allow a little more research.

The question that needs to be answered is whether Reno is ready for a community site. What’s crucial is to get people who are interested in local issues, activities, and overall community to participate. I see a little of that happening. People I’ve been aware of on some sites are now commenting more on other sites. Others have started their own blogs after being frequent commenters on mine and others. That makes me a bit more optimistic as I would have been a few months ago. I now think it could happen. The next trick is the sustainability of the site – keeping interest and making it pay for itself. If that’s possible, we could have ourselves a winner.

Ryan JerzRyan Jerz is an all-around good guy who wants people to eventually refer to him as "that dude who climbs mountains."

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