Over on his personal blog, Benji Lanyado asks if hyperlocal is all hype, worrying that the ad dollars will never arrive to sustain it, or that the need for a lot of hyperlocal content will drag down the level of quality to unacceptable levels. “Hyperlocal has been talked about for years, but a eureka moment still hasn’t materialised,” he writes.
I think Lanyado has surveyed hyperlocal ably and asked some very good questions. I’m not out to bash him. But it struck me that his skepticism, while well-founded, seems entirely too early — just as it does when attached to other news experiments by other commenters. Take nonprofit journalism, about which I’ll be moderating a panel discussion for Gelf Magazine’s Media Circus in Dumbo Thursday night. (Details here — come by!) If you read the nonprofit model’s detractors, you’ll conclude it’s clearly all hype too, whether the problem is that philanthropists’ agendas will distort things or that news organizations that don’t try to make money will wind up irredeemably flabby in allocating resources. Citizen journalists? Untrained hacks who can’t be taught the first thing about accuracy and fairness. Wikis? Poorly policed and prone to vandalism. Social media? Dooms us all to echo chambers of likeminded thought.
Skepticism is good, and we have to keep our revolutionary fervor in check lest our hopes for new journalism become cheerleading. But we also can’t let doubts and worries lead us to dismiss experiments while they’re still running. The newspaper industry’s current travails have taken a lot of these experiments off the back burner, and they’re now getting real attention — along with real money and, yes, an excess of hype. We need to resist excessive enthusiasm and cynicism and simply let the experiments run, giving ourselves time to reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and what kind of worked — and then run variations on those experiments. And then do it again. And then some more. Right now we’re like biologists peering at the brew of lightning-stoked amino acids and grousing that this stuff will never produce a decent opposable thumb.
To borrow Clay Shirky’s line, “Nothing will work, but everything might.” It’s going to take time to find the mights and iterate them into some part of some successful model. And I bet that model will have little resemblance to what we’re thinking about now, here at the end of 2009 amid the early winter of the print age. The daily print paper as we knew it for generations isn’t exactly an obvious mix either: Who’d think to take news about distant lands and news about nearby towns and political editorials and sports and lifestyle pieces and advice columns and humor and cartoons and horoscopes and comics and crosswords and help-wanted ads and for-sale signs and coded personal messages and kids’ drawings and movie reviews and entertainment listings and neighborhood gossip and lots and lots of retail ads and present it as something that people would not only pay for but come to cherish as part of their morning routine? Yet that worked, and it worked for a long time. We need to bear that in mind, and be patient in figuring out what will work next.
Over at his editor’s blog for the Greensboro News & Record, John Robinson laments the disconnect between quirky newsrooms and the often-dull news they produce: “One of the great journalism paradoxes is that newspaper people are a whole lot of fun, newspaper Web sites aren’t. Newsrooms are full of prankers, jokers and larger than life characters. Yet, we tend to take our news content seriously…often ponderously so. Too often we squeeze the humorous life out of what we produce.”
I earned my Web-journalist spurs at the Wall Street Journal Online in the mid-1990s, when it was a small, scrappy newsroom-within-a-newsroom, an experiment conducted (and viewed with varying degrees of enthusiasm) within the traditional confines of the print Journal. We dot-commers were serious about our mission, and keenly aware that we were representing the Journal in a new medium then viewed as not generally living up to its standards. Yet for all that we also had an enormous amount of fun. The news desk was populated by characters — bitingly funny, canny journalism veterans and newcomers who were quick studies — and the news cycle was a never-ending, free-spirited conversation and debate about motivation, agendas, spin, market reaction, politics, posturing and everything else. It was cynical and savage, sometimes, but almost always informed and wise. When big news broke and I wasn’t in the newsroom I felt cheated — the conversation was going on without me and I was left out.
One of the things that most excited me about blogs’ acceptance in mainstream journalism was the idea that some of that conversation could be captured — that a less formal setting would allow some of that personality to come through instead of being sanded away by caution and copy editing. Sometimes that’s proved true and sometimes it’s hasn’t; these days, Twitter is the vehicle by which you get some sense of journalists as raconteurs and wits and thinkers. Either way, it’s welcome.
My formative experience at WSJ.com — which I hadn’t realized how much I missed until I wrote the paragraph above — came on the heels of another such experience, the last time I really identified myself as part of a community centered around a daily print paper. Living in Bethesda, Md., in the early 1990s I read the Washington Post every day, and the section I loved best (and dreamed of working for) was the Style section. The Style section offered a lot of terrific, finely crafted journalism, but it also felt like the daily minutes of a strange and wonderful club. There was a rollicking glee to the writing, with off-the-wall story ideas turned (usually successfully or at least interestingly) into long-form stories, biting commentary and an enormous amount of humor — from dry, sophisticated fare to lampshade-on-the-head goofiness. The section was full of in-jokes and running gags, but it never felt exclusionary — you could become a member of the club just by continuing to show up.
I haven’t been in WSJ.com’s newsroom in some time, so I don’t know if the news desk is still an entertaining free-for-all. I sure hope it is. But I still love the Style section for Gene Weingarten and Tom Shales and Robin Givhan and its other sharp, smart writers. I love reading what the baseball beat writers I follow on Twitter say when their brains get a little frazzled by the mad spectacle of the winter meetings. I like the twinkle in the eye you can sense when reading the tweets of ColonelTribune, the Chicago Tribune’s Twitter persona.
There’s still fun to be had in journalism — and like Robinson, I’d love to see it given freer rein. And I think within the bounds of responsibility, readers would respond to it as well. The torrent of information generated by countless publishers new and old produces an enormous amount of disorienting noise; within that, personality stands out as welcome signal.
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My latest sportswriting column for the National Sports Journalism Center looks at the coverage of Tiger Woods’ travails, and ponders how online news organizations might handle stories they think are beneath their journalistic standards, but are being discussed by an audience that’s read all the gossip.