Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
“The Internet hates secrets”: Clear Health Costs works with newsrooms to bring healthcare costs out of hiding
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Feb. 10, 2010, 10 a.m.

The Internet golden age of local policy debate

Sure, the digital age might be killing professional muckraking in local markets, and most of the spadework that becomes local news stories might still come from newspapers. But a new empirical study suggests that all the new online din isn’t crowding out serious policy debate.

Just the opposite: Startup news sites are drawing far more attention to actual local policy than newspapers, TV, or radio.

That’s my take on this study, first presented in December, of where discussions about Portland’s city government are happening online. As reported by the Portland Mercury, social media consultant Jamie Beckland dug through six months of articles and comments from a variety of local sites for uses of the words “bureau,” “city,” “government,” “agency,” or “department” in conjunction with “Portland.”

Percentage of posts or comments with direct references to Portland city government, May-Oct. 2009He found that topical local blogs ran rings around traditional media when it came to such references. The site that racked up the most posts and comments about those dry topics was bikeportland.org, a professionally reported blog for the city’s intense bicycle scene. Number two: mentalhealthportland.org, a daily filter of articles about people with mental illness and their run-ins with the law. Also in the top six: hipster hangout Blogtown PDX, hyperlocal aggregator neighborhoodnotes.com and libertarian opinionator bojack.org. (Full disclosure: I’m friendly with many of these sites’ creators.) And finally, down at #9: The Oregonian.

All told, the upstarts accounted for 72 percent of local posts and comments that met Beckland’s test, compared to 16 percent for sites he identified as “mainstream media.”

What gives?

A couple sites on Beckland’s list, it’s true, probably scored so high because they just reproduce city press releases. And it’s not as if the metro daily paper ignored City Hall, where Portland’s mayor spent the year clawing out of a sex scandal.

But that’s the rub: when legacy media like The Oregonian write about local government, they try to maximize the audience by focusing on politics and narratives. Who’s in, who’s out? Who’s lying, who’s honest? Important stuff, but it doesn’t lend itself to words like “bureau” — or to substantive coverage of how a city is actually being run. That’s because any given local-policy story only appeals to the narrow sliver of people that the policy in question affects. In the mass media, that’s not profitable content.

Startups like BikePortland are different. When topical news startups cover local government, they don’t aim to be interesting to many; they aim to be indispensable to a few. The result? A network of niche sites that spend a lot of time actually working with the nuts and bolts of whichever local policies matter most to their particular audience.

I don’t know about you, but that’s a trade I’ll take.

POSTED     Feb. 10, 2010, 10 a.m.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 45,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
“The Internet hates secrets”: Clear Health Costs works with newsrooms to bring healthcare costs out of hiding
“We think of this as a perfect use case for journalism — finding real, good information and displaying it back to the public.”
To Philly and beyond: The Lenfest Institute announces $2 million in funding for local news projects
The Philadelphia Media Network is getting $1 million. Twelve organizations and five entrepreneurs-in-residence will be getting another for projects ranging from local news membership models to experiments in audience engagement.
What newsroom execs around the world think should be the next big areas of focus for their companies
Worry is universal — but a quarter of publishers surveyed said their revenues are going up, not down.