I look forward to the delivery of my daily newspaper. The thud as the bundle of pages strikes the driveway or lands in the bushes signals the dawning of a new day. But sadly this comfort will soon be gone. But does this really matter?
All over the world newspapers are being replaced by the internet. Five years ago, 74 per cent of 14 to 24 year olds had read a newspaper in the past week and today the figure is only 52 per cent. More than two-thirds of the Fairfax audience now reads online papers and the Guardian has recently reported that it might not be printing in three years time.
But as print newspapers fade away (hopefully not all together) and more of us read online, via computers, tablets and iphones we are also reading our news from a diverse range of websites. Many of these, known as hyperlocal and focusing on a small geographical area are becoming increasingly popular. Such sites have much in common with community papers and cover stories that are largely ignored by mainstream media outlets.
Hyperlocal news sites tend to carry stories about a defined community with some supporters suggesting they signify a return to “old school local journalism.” – a time where citizens had access to a diversity of newspapers – both progressive and partisan, and before the days of concentrated media ownership. For once upon a time journalism was seen as a craft that was “supporting democracy” by providing the vital “watchdog” function. Journalists were instrumental in writing on important civic matters that were read by the public, leading to the formation of opinion, debate and public activism. By the 1920s newspaper ownership was becoming concentrated into fewer and fewer hands and journalism was losing its radicalism as the owner dictated the agenda. Much of our current reporting, to use the words of the author of Flat Earth News, Nick Davies is churnalism - cheap stories that have been selected for their safe ideas and facts, with the imperative to present both sides of the story. News reports must also result in an increase in readership and audience.
This week Fairfax Media announced it will be cutting 1900 staff and begin charging for content on the websites of its two main metropolitan newspapers as the company adjusts to shrinking advertising revenue. And over at News Ltd chief executive Kim Williams has announced his company’s future payment models: website paywalls, subscriptions for specific topics such as sport; and story-by-story micropayments. Mr Williams told ABC TV’s 7.30 program that “in the physical world, a dollar is a dollar. In the digital world, that dollar becomes about 18 cents”. “So you need lots and lots of 18 cents, lots of piles of them in order to get back to that dollar.”
Many questions arise as we ponder the future of the media. How is news to be financed? Who will have access to information in our brave new world of digital media? What is news and information anyway? Surely we could do without all the opinion and commentary that makes up so much of what is regarded as media today. Can it be sourced and written for free?
The author of The Content Makers: Understanding the Media in Australia, Margaret Simons claims that investigative reporting is hard to achieve in the gift economy of the internet but not impossible. Simons cites the work of Professor Jay Rosen who has started a new internet venture called New Assignment.Net. The idea behind this venture is that enough people who care about quality journalism will be willing to pay for it without having to resort to the old advertising model.
The editor of the Nieman Reports, Melissa Ludtke cites the story by Brett J. Blackledge, a reporter at The Birmingham News, a hyperlocal webiste, who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for a story about a small, local college that trained firefighters. What he ultimately discovered was a trail of corruption and cronyism within the state’s two-year college system. At The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, going local meant sending a reporter, Tony Bartelme, and a photographer, Alan Hawes, to China to send back word about a Charleston resident’s stem cell transplant. While there, they found other “local” stories about business connections.
‘Hyperlocal is difficult, expensive and not for the faint of heart,’ writes Barb Palser who claims that although many news organisations believe that hyperlocal sites can benefit both consumers and advertisers there are already many failures and that many news organizations have abandoned attempts at hyperlocal journalism. On the other hand there’s the Ann Arbour Chronicle which focuses on civic affairs and local government coverage. Established in 2008 by two freelance journalists, the Chronicle is both a community service and a business and caters to the needs of local audiences .
Author of Community Journalism, Jock Lauterer claims there is a growing acceptance of the idea and practice of local or community journalism and that locally oriented news and information supports and fosters the community. Lauterer asserts that “community journalism isn’t synonymous with mediocrity” and that critics who say it can’t do the hard stories, or give voice to dissenting ideas, are wrong.