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The Rise of New Voices in Local News

February 5, 2010

Occasionally, you’ll still see comments by newspaper traditionalists advocating radical measures (government support, etc.) to save newspapers, based on the claim that only newspapers do original reporting. There was an element of that inherent in the recent Pew Report, for example, that attempted to analyze news coverage in Baltimore. (More on that in a bit.)

We believe there’s a false assumption there—that only newspapers are doing original reporting, or are the only ones capable of it. We think that’s wrong: independent journalists, publishing digitally on entrepreneurial local sites, are doing important original reporting, as well.

We were reminded of that the other day with this story by the Broward Bulldog, breaking news of a $170 million Ponzi scheme in South Florida (one of three or four uncovered there in the past year). Notice that the story didn’t break in the dominant local traditional media in South Florida: the Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post or  Sun-Sentinel. It was broken by an independent site.

The story came from spadework by Dan Christensen, editor and publisher of the Broward Bulldog. Dan  is a longtime investigative reporter at the Sun-Sentinel, the Daily Business Review and most recently the Miami Herald. He left the Herald last year in one of the buyout waves, and launched the Bulldog, a non-profit site dedicated to public-interest reporting. He’s held in such regard in South Florida journalism circles that the Sun-Sentinel didn’t chase the story itself—it used a content-sharing arrangement with Christensen to simply pick up the story, complete with byline and link to the Bulldog, for its own editions.

Christensen’s Bulldog is a sterling example of the emerging local-news ecosystem—a passionate, highly skilled independent digging out stuff that other media miss. It’s hardly an isolated example. Jan Schaffer’s J-Lab and, among others, are tracking the rise of literally thousands of sites focused on community journalism, launched by laid-off pros or just people who worried that their community wasn’t getting covered the way it used to.

Want some more examples? In Baltimore, Fern Shen’s excellent regularly breaks news that only later shows up in the much-diminished Baltimore Sun. In Virginia, the AnnandaleVA blog, written by Ellie Ashford, is tracking stories about major local real estate developments that have eluded The Washington Post and even community newspapers.

This is why we’re so bullish about the potential for entrepreneurial journalism startups to fill the increasingly gaping holes in local coverage. These replacements aren’t all here yet—Clay Shirky is on to something when he talks about the threat of a journalistic Dark Age while a new news ecosystem coalesces. But there already are myriad examples of news sites filling the gaps. Last June, GrowthSpur’s Mark Potts detailed how a raft of entrepreneurial sites in Baltimore—including Baltimore Brew—are providing a new layer of local coverage in that city (in spite of what the Pew Report would have you believe). That pattern is being repeated elsewhere, with some cities now seeing dozens and even hundreds of community sites joining the fray.

Our charge at GrowthSpur is to help to provide a business model—including local ad-sales networks, tools and training—to support these local news startups, and that’s what we’re working hard at. Seeing great work like the above examples from Dan, Fern and Ellie gives us optimism that we’re on to something, that there’s a new local news ecosystem being born. That’s exciting news for anyone who cherishes journalism.

  1. February 5, 2010 2:17 pm

    Center Maryland is another local non-profit journalism project with original content. Check it out:

  2. February 5, 2010 6:48 pm

    The future is bright.
    It’s just that the cost of delivering news went from super-expensive to super-cheap overnight. Had it been just a moderate reduction in expense, the industry would have been able to deal with it. But this collapse has created a temporary black hole from which a new industry is emerging.
    The massive overhead, meanwhile, which existing businesses still have has left them in a difficult, if not impossible position to adapt from. Unwilling to scrap areas of there business that are still profitable but declining, they are forfeiting entry into these new emerging markets.

  3. Michael Hill permalink
    February 13, 2010 12:25 am

    The Pew report did not say that there was not good work done on non-traditional media, nor that they did not break stories — indeed it documented that they did — only that that work did not get the public’s attention until it found the megaphone of one of the traditional media. Otherwise, it was proverbial trees falling in the proverbial forest.

  4. February 13, 2010 1:47 am

    Bologna. Besides, the pew report has been used as old media propaganda despite being debunked, but to any sane and realistic person, it’s clear that blogs and “new media”, whatever that is, are ever growing in importance and influence. All else is irrelevant. It’s also irrelevant if old media produces all the news, if they are going out of business, which they are. Something will replace it. What? That is the important question right now. Not whether old media is still important at the moment. We all know that’s true. But they are declining every day, no ? Don’t say ” no” by the way. ; )

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