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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

“Locally grown” news gets a boost

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 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, 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 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.

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  • Digidave

    We are very much simpatico and in discussion about how we might help each other out.

  • Mathew Ingram

    It definitely seems like a natural fit, Dave — thanks for the comment.

  • Tracy Davis

    Great post, and one of the better summaries of the ideas implicit in both the CSJ and our own local efforts that I’ve seen. Thanks for taking an interest. Of course I’m biased, but I agree we’re worth keeping an eye on.

  • Mathew Ingram

    Thanks for the comment, Tracy. I’m glad I got it right :-)

    And best of luck with the project. From the looks of it, you and your group have been at this kind of thing for some time now — since before there were blogs, or Twitter or any of that. If anyone can make it work, it’s you guys.

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  • Griff Wigley

    Hi Mathew,

    That’s my pingback above but I wanted to add a little more here.

    We think that participation/engagement is going to be key to developing a systemic solution to the problem… specifically, a large dose of collaboration and transparency between the local journalists and the citizenry.

    The more local freelance journalists engage with the local citizenry throughout the process of pitching, producing, publishing and promoting a story, the more likely it is that citizens and local institutions will financially support their work. It’s the relationship, stupid!

    The more local journalists see the citizenry stepping forward financially, the more they’ll practice their craft with more transparency and collaboration. The better they get at it, the more they can charge for their work. We hope that local foundations will step forward to fund stories that the citizenry might not want to hear but need to hear.

    We’re also thinking that it’ll be best for the local RepJ journalists to NOT be attached to any one media organization… like David is doing with Their stories could end up on our Locally Grown blog, the Northfield News (weekly newspaper), KYMN (local radio station), or NTV (local public access cable). It seems like this approach would accommodate to the financial ups and downs of the local media orgs while allowing the journalists the flexibility to have their work published as widely as possible.

    Like everyone else, we could be wrong, tho!

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