It’s easy to spend a lot of time focusing on what’s wrong with the way newspapers and other media outlets are dealing with the Web, because let’s face it, there’s plenty of material (a great recent post along those lines is this one from Lectroid.net). But I think it’s worth noting some of the positive things that are going on, and some of the interesting experiments in doing things differently. One that I came across recently is Georgia-based journalism professor Leonard Witt’s “representative journalism” or RepJ project. I found out about it because Witt just recently received a grant of $1.5-million from the Harnisch Foundation to set up a Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University. In his description of Representative Journalism, Witt says:
As mass journalism markets unbundle and become niche markets, news operations, if they are to survive, will have to join the niche movement rather than fight it. Rather than think in terms of a circulation of, let’s say, 100,000, they should think in terms of 100 niche markets of 1,000 each and form membership communities around those niches.
The centerpiece for each membership community will be the news and information tailored to each community’s needs, with a reporter and editing support devoted specifically to each community of 1,000. Online social networking, interactivity, face-to-face events will all be used to build group cohesion.
One of the pilot projects in this experiment is Locally Grown Northfield, a website/news operation in Minnesota run by a trio of bloggers and a “representative journalist” named Bonnie Obremski. She writes stories and also has a blog, where readers can comment on stories or suggest stories, and the site itself is set up more or less like a blog — using what appears to be a modified WordPress theme — with comments on news stories, and a box with rotating headlines, etc. There are sponsored links and discussion forums, and many of the latter seem to get an impressive amount of traffic for a small town. The site also aggregates local bloggers posts as well.
This is a fascinating effort, I think. Since the idea is that these local news operations will be “crowdsourced” or community-financed, in many ways it reminds me of Spot.us, the “crowd-funded” journalism effort from David Cohn — and in fact, the two are sharing ideas and sit on each other’s advisory boards (Bill Densmore of the Media Giraffe Project and Lisa Williams of Placeblogger are also on the Representative Journalism advisory board). It’s not clear whether RepJ or Spot.us are viable long-term models for journalism, but there’s no question they are both interesting experiments. The Locally Grown Northfield project in particular seems like a thriving model for a local, community-driven news operation — and one that is worth keeping an eye on.
Tim Armstrong, a Google executive, is involved in funding another local news effort known as Patch — more details here.