Local News in the Digital Age

Thursday, September 22
5:00-7:00 p.m.

Bartos Theater

MIT Media Lab
20 Ames Street


Is local news a casualty of the digital age?  A recent report from the Federal Communications Commission suggests that although the broad media landscape is more vibrant than ever, many state and local communities face a shortage of professional reporting, undermining journalism’s watchdog role at the local level. This Forum will assess the state of local journalism, paying special attention to the changing environment for news in New England. Our speakers, drawn from traditional as well as online media, include Callie Crossley, host of her own talk show on WGBH; David Dahl, who oversees local news initiatives for the Boston Globe and Boston.com; and Adam Gaffin of the local news site Universal HubDan Kennedy, a media analyst who teaches at Northeastern University, will moderate the discussion.


Video of Local News in the Digital Age is available.

Downloadable Podcast

A downloadable podcast of Local News in the Digital Age is available.


[This is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript.]

By Patrica Kennon, CMS visiting scholar

Photos by Greg Peverill-Conti

Dan Kennedy

Dan Kennedy began noting that the Federal Communications Commission’s recent report on local news certainly contained some melancholy statistics: 13,400 journalism jobs lost over the last four years and billion-dollar losses in newspaper print advertising. But he considered the report to be "unnecessarily gloomy" in light of the "explosion of new ventures and experiments" both in print and online that continue to appear.  Examples include the New Haven Independent, Voice of San Diego, the Texas Tribune, and the expanding local coverage in the Boston area. He invited each of the speakers to discuss whether local journalism was a casualty of the digital age.

David Dahl

David Dahl, regional editor of Boston Globe, in charge of Boston.com’s hyperlocal news sites, stated an emphatic "no," citing community news and information sites such as Cambridge Day, Inside Medford, UniversalHub and local television and radio stations which have started their own websites to cultivate a stronger community presence. With 50 Your Town zones in the Greater Boston area staffed by town correspondents, linked to content from the Boston Globe and to local blogs with contributions by users, he argued that more stories in Greater Boston are being covered now than in previous years, referring to two recent news stories of the ticketing of cyclists in Cambridge and the reporting of the city council race in Dorchester. Overall, he felt that this increasing combination of face-to-face reporting, wider use of social media tools such as Facebook and the corresponding closer attention to community needs and activities has made the Globe a "fundamentally a better news corporation."

Callir Crossley

Callie Crossley, host of a WGBH radio talk show, began by commenting on the traditional lack of coverage in mainstream media from large corporations and a bias against local news which, she said, has memorably been defined to her as "animal abuse and salacious murders." Showing examples such as the Bay State Banner, Blackstonian and El Planeta which cater to African-American and Latino populations, she discussed the "gaps" between what gets reported upon and what doesn’t. Touching on the question of whether the definition of reporting is indeed changing, she emphasised the importance of addressing how both reporters and their audiences discover and then deploy their use of news publications, institutions and information opportunities for content that resonates with their own particular experience and perspective.

As a description of her vision of local news reporting, she used the example of a journalist friend of hers, Bobbi Bowman, who started the McLeanEar website in McLean, Virginia in response to the lack of local attention at the neighbourhood level. Like this website which covers everything from lost dogs to the history of locally situated governmental bodies in McLean such as the Counter Terrorism Department, Crossley stated that her radio show is focused on a conversation about local stories which emerge organically from the community, running the continuum from coverage of the Fluff Festival in Somerville to holding candidate round tables during local political races. While she acknowledged the greater investment of time and work in covering local content, she concluded that "the digital age and local news are a match made in heaven."

Adam Gaffin

The final speaker, Adam Gaffin, cofounder, publisher and editor of UniversalHub, identified a "fundamental problem" with the FFC report’s assumption that newspaper organisations are the only forces that can and should continue to do local reporting. He argued that there is a fundamental transformation happening in how local news is covered and consumed, bringing job losses and gaps in coverage but also new opportunities and experiments. One of the changes he noted in his own experience was the Hub’s increase in "news as conversation" and a surge in breaking news, which is made possible by ordinary people equipped with mobile phones and cameras, acting as reporters. With this momentum in user-generated news, enabled by Twitter and other social media, news is "no longer one news organisation talking to lots of people, it’s everyone talking to everyone else." However, he still emphasized the importance of the role of professional journalists to act as a filter in bringing all the stories together in a coherent and lucid way.

posed a question to Dahl about the difficulty of finding a business model to pay for the increase in local coverage in light of corporations such as AOL Patch and GateHouse Media. Is it the old pattern of giant chains monopolizing the local conversation but just with a new digital technology? Dahl replied that while different markets will respond in different ways, the news industry has become much more familiar with issues of return on investment. While no one has perfected how to acquire advertising dollars, he noted a trend in the use of daily deal sites as a way to connect users and merchants. Since small-business owners are also members of the community, he stated that a news outlet selling advertisements to a local merchant is as much a revenue generator as it is an outreach function to the people in that community.

Kennedy asked Gaffin whether the bloggers he aggregates are worried about the growing presence of corporations such as AOL Patch? While observing that the Boston market is underdeveloped for hyperlocal advertising and that the bloggers in his network are not preoccupied with or motivated by profit, Gaffin said that journalists need to become more familiar and knowledgeable about business and advertising models. Crossley added that Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL, recently referred to Google’s recent purchase of the local restaurant reviewing company, Zagat, as "the proof point that local is really important."

In light of terrestrial radio and public radio stations such as WGBH being threatened with extinction by new technologies, Kennedy asked Crossley about the sustainability of local news coverage. She stated that as long as there is interest in local neighbourhoods, local talk shows that "allow people to finish their sentence and finish their thought" will remain viable, as opposed to more commercially-driven shows.

asked the panel whether they still detect a bias against local news? Gaffin replied that while his site is specifically local and his audience is a self-selecting community interested in local stories, the basic journalism and reporting still apply of providing a wide range of news and content for a wide range of people. Dahl stated that he is so immersed in local news that he does not see any bias despite Boston Globe’s repositioning of itself as focusing more and more on the Greater Boston area.

In answering Kennedy’s next question about the role, advantages and local news value of citizen journalists, Gaffin touched on issues of trust, the validity of user-generated news and the need for someone to pull "all the atoms together," concluding that the challenge is bringing people who are writing the news full-time together with committed citizen journalists with individuals who Tweet on an ad-hoc basis about situations immediately before them. Dahl added that while the Your Town’s links to area blogs at the moment result in an uneven model, the Globe is seeking to position itself as a convener of the news conversation, explicitly deploying its brand name and standing in the communities.

Audience discussion:

Question: Is the reliance on the Herculean effort and ridiculous hours involved in journalism and online reporting sustainable?

All the panelists agreed that the danger of journalists and young reporters burning out from gruelling work is still a regrettable reality but that this balance between online and on-the-ground reportage needs to be better negotiated by companies such as AOL Patch in their strategy and choice of which neighbourhoods to cover and how to cover them.

Question: During the riots in England during the summer, the Manchester police bureau engaged in the "naming and shaming’" of convicted rioters via Twitter resulting in an online debate about whether they were overstepping their bounds and possibly enabling retributory violence against the named people. Given that content on hyperlocal sites is just as available as Twitter, what are the ethical implications of publishing local information on online news sites? How do the ethics change when you take to the web with this local information?

Terrific question. You’re putting your finger on something really interesting and I don’t know if we have a solid answer to it right now, I guess I’m a traditionalist here. Traditionally, the position we would take is that a public record is a public record and so long as it’s an accurate record of what the police have said or put into their records, we would put it on a police logger online. But your point brings up a lot of concerns about people’s reputations and how they’ll last forever online. The issue often is, "I was found not guilty, where’s the story?" or "This is still living online, how can I get it taken down?" and we deal with it on a case by case basis.

Crossley, Gaffin, Dahl

Crossley: It makes me uncomfortable and I don’t know why because as David said, it’s a public record and why when it’s sitting there online, it seems to be saying something else. It is the permanence of it and if I were to go the police station to look at it, that would take some effort on my part more than if I happened to be flipping through the website one night and I happened to see the booking photos. What concerns me about that particular case is that in any of those riots situations, unless someone has a camera from eight different camera angles, someone was just standing there. I just know that and it makes me uncomfortable that suddenly they’re in a campaign fostered by the police and it’s up there forever.

Question: Something I’m conflicted about is when you have local news on the internet, what happens to those communities who don’t have internet access, how are they going to get their local news and does that leave a lot of people out?

There are two sides to that. What you’ll find is that communities with lower rates of internet access also tend to have lower rates of coverage. I think access to the internet is not going to be as big an issue as it may have been a few years ago. What becomes more of an issue is the information itself. If there’s nobody in Roxbury reporting on what’s happening in Roxbury, who is going to step up and cover that? I’m not saying there’s no coverage but the town of Milton has a Patch site, a Gatehouse site, and Your Town site.

I think that mobile technology is really going to make a difference. The community most likely to have a cell phone are Latinos so there’s an opportunity there to get some information to them that way. So there may be in some of these communities who are underserved through print product or even online product that somehow it comes together on the web in the form of mobile technology.

Question: How do you see the local news sites’ interaction with local commercial television and radio developing?

It provides an opportunity that is largely untapped because many television shows have not yet realised the potential of any part of cyberspace. There are all kinds of forces working in that direction. First of all, people are expecting it to be there and they’re not finding it there so they’re looking around elsewhere. It behoves those stations to make alliances, if no other reason, to get content. Most radio and TV stations are really bad. We know how to do video and audio and I just can’t believe that television stations allow themselves to beaten up this way when this was an obvious opportunity, a clear ability to show off the central part of the technology that is of great interest to people and they’ve blown it, pretty much.

By blowing it, it’s given us an opportunity over the last two or three years, we’ve wrapped up our video operation significantly and it’s now regularly featured on Boston.com. What we have seen for years are the local TV stations, and they still do it, reading what was in the Globe that morning and we see an opportunity to get out front and provide that coverage in a digital video way.

Question: What about expanding public funding for public media, to have independent public funding run by community committees to disperse money to community publications in the public interest?

Everywhere you look in public media, people are getting laid off. Public media is at a place right now where they’re trying to figure out how to reinvent, how to bring back to the numbers that were there in which we demonstrated that we were doing a kind of work that just cannot not be done in a commercial setting or if it cannot, it is not being done in a commercial setting. I don’t know if people have placed a value on it. People who want to have information are just not that impressed that local news brings them something. So you first have to get people of a mindset that it is important and that it has to be supported and maybe there’s some expansion to public media in a way we have not seen in this country.  

It’s not going to happen when a Tea Party that’s essentially controlling Congress and if the Tea Party is essentially controlling Congress, can you trust them with public media funds? It would have to be a grassroots, local effort or state-wide effort, don’t look to Washington for anything.

I agree. The political landscape isn’t there. What’s been remarkable over the last few years is the way foundations have stepped into this void with seed money to encourage innovation in the hyperlocal space. The trick then is to get some foundation money, figure out a way to sustain beyond that, to build community around your brand so you can fundraise from individuals or sell ads or have partnerships with other universities.

Question: Is the use of social sites and outsourcing of third-party social graphs a good thing? Is it inevitable and where does that trend lead?

Whenever I rely on third-party for anything, I do get a little concerned. What I’m using those little icons for is more of a traffic builder. You can embed Facebook comments now on your website and now you’re exposed to this huge audience on this huge platform but you do have to worry about are you giving up some level of control. Yes, you do have to be careful. It’s not like twenty years ago where the newspaper or media organisation was it and you owned everything about your customers or readers. You do have a relationship with the people you communicate with and what happens if Facebook decides you’ve violated one of their policies and they don’t let you do that and six months’ worth comments by hundreds of people disappear.

One of the things that bothers me about news sharing on Facebook is it really depends on what your community is and who your community is. What if your group is stupid and all you’re getting is stupid news? I’d like to have a broader thing to be going on and that’s what bothers me. I know that’s the way of the future but it seems to me that for people’s communities, as big as Facebook is, it can be too narrow. Already, that would be limiting to me.

What a lot of people are trying to figure out is where do the comments go in a newspaper site world. In legacy news sites, the comments can be anonymous. Some news organisations have gravitated to where comments happen via Facebook, with that huge audience. We’re experimenting with it with the Your Town sites. We’re using Facebook as a distribution device. It’s an odd situation. We have to play in this space since there are so many users.