Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age by Dan Kennedy

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy. This did not affect my review in any way.

The Wired City uses the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news website that serves the city of New Haven, Connecticut, to help provide a context for the larger story of how news reporting has changed and, more importantly, is changing.

Although most people wouldn't immediately identify New Haven (or most other places in Connecticut) as a hotbed of innovation, we see pretty immediately why that city is a perfect place for experiments in news coverage: it's a city of about 120,000- not large enough to have attracted big name investment that would crowd out individuals with less money but no shortage of ideas; it's a diverse city, with significant white, black and Latino populations; it's a city in which income is not evenly distributed: 29% of its residents are at or below the poverty level; finally, it benefits from the proximity of Yale University, which attracts and to some extent fosters people with clever ideas.

On top of that, many residents in New Haven felt underserved for decades by the city's major paper, the New Haven Register. In part, this was due to the fact that the paper was largely supported by advertisers (as are most newspapers), and a calculation was made that an advertiser's potential customers were likely not in the poorer areas. Also, when poorer areas were covered, the predominant focus was crime. Crime happens- but so do library events, new business openings and gardening victories. The Register had and continues to have very little interest in covering those aspects of city life.

The New Haven Independent, founded by respected and energetic journalist Paul Bass in 2005, set up shop in the heart of New Haven, leasing space from La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, the city's Spanish-language paper. Rather than (literally and figuratively) phoning the stories in, the Independent's handful of reporters move quickly from story to story within the city, whether it's taking place at an elementary school, city hall, a local business or a crime scene.

Kennedy paints a picture of a news ventures that's succeeding primarily because of its intimacy with its subjects. Indeed, as the title suggests, the Independent sees its job as not only to report the news of the community but also, as one philanthropist put it, to foster a sense of community. If that is the primary mission, everything else about the site is subservient to it: being a non-profit that depends primarily on grant funding works because its audience is low-income and therefore not attractive to advertisers, and being strictly web-based works because the entry and maintenance costs are much lower than those of a traditional paper. As of right now, the model works, but Bass (and Kennedy) are very aware that the grants it now depends on might not be renewed after its initial expiration, and there is always a concern about potential conflicts of interest. Fortunately, Bass seems to have no end for funding ideas, and as of this writing, the site continues to operate.

This is not strictly about the Independent. Kennedy also discusses other successful hyperlocal online ventures such as the Batavian, Baristanet and the Voice of San Diego, some of which were inspirations for the Independent, but most of which are for-profit. He also discusses some less successful endeavors, including AOL's Patch network, which less than two weeks before this writing announced a number of upcoming layoffs and site closures. In other words, the story of how- and indeed whether- local journalism is going to survive continues to develop.

Recommended for media watchers and anyone concerned about the continuation of local news.