On July 4th, thinking about committing acts of community journalism

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to cover the news ourselves, that’s probably a really good idea.

And, according to a report from The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, there’s a crying need as well, in Washington state and, one would imagine, from sea to shining sea.

In its “Rural Information Initiative,” (“rural” being defined more as non-metro than “time to milk the cows” territory) the college notes that, even a state as technologically advanced as Washington is a “rural information ghetto when it comes to local news for smaller communities.”

It is particularly ironic that at a time when the circulation reach of “mainstream” news organizations is dramatically expanding thanks to digital technologies, the physical areas regional newspapers and broadcasters are able to directly cover are being dramatically reduced by budget cuts that mean fewer “boots on the ground” outside the borders of the major metros. This means that even digitally-­literate rural citizens who do have high-­speed Internet access are often still without a source of local news.

The solution: make it easier for citizen journalists to use that mobile newsroom in their pockets — their smartphone — to fill in the gaps and help keep their communities informed.

Among the specific recommendations:

The project will facilitate training/content partnerships between “mainstream media” and citizens who can provide reporting from rural areas beyond the news footprint of existing news organizations. This may include:

  •  Journalism training for aspiring “community journalists” carried out on a regional basis in the orbit of each of the major metros in partnership with each market’s dominant local media and technology providers
  • An infrastructure for community news partnerships with established media organizations modeled on The Seattle Times’ network of alliances
  • Funding from a combination of community, regional and national foundations, along with news organization partners 

A few quick reactions to what is, overall, a pretty good approach to the problem:

• The focus on education is key — after all people need to know the hows and whys of gathering news (or information that can be shaped into news reporting) — but I wonder if a pure J-School in a Box is likely to be as effective as some simple incentives and gamification (see GasBuddy for a good example of that in action). The two approaches together might be the way to go.

• Cit-Js working together with traditional media can certainly work, but there should also be more in here on empowering small communities to self-cover themselves. After all, the only technological barrier between a community not having a local publication and having a local publication is a two-minute sign-up process on tumblr.com or similar site.

• I don’t know how you can write a 43-page report on hyperlocal news in Washington without even once mentioning Patch.com, which covers 17 communities in the state. Seems like a blind spot that needs explaining in a footnote, at least.

Photo (cc) by Quinn Dombrowski

Tim Windsor

VP, Content & Conversion at LendingPoint LLC
I lead media companies and other organizations that want to develop and improve their mobile and digital strategies and technologies, grow audience, and build sustainable digital revenue.