Grand Rapids, Mich., was decreed to be “dying” in January. The report, by Mainstreet.com, turned out to be greatly exaggerated. But exactly how healthy is the “Office Furniture Capital of the World,” the second largest city in a state that has been reeling economically since before the great recession? To find out, I went to The Rapidian, which bills itself as “a hyperlocal news source powered by the people of Grand Rapids.”
The new and much-quoted F.C.C. report on “Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a BroadBand Age” is massive and well written, and its authors did their due diligence by holding workshops whose testimony from an array of media experts fills 711 pages. But the report’s back-to-the-future prescription for community news in the digital era is a big disappointment.
The report’s most fraught conclusion, and the one getting the most published attention:
“…in many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting. This is likely to lead to the kinds of problems that are, not surprisingly, associated with a lack of accountability—more government waste, more local corruption, less effective schools, and other serious community problems. The independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism—going so far as to call it crucial to a healthy democracy—is in some cases at risk at the local level.”
“Engagement,” just about everyone agrees, is a must, especially for news websites, most especially hyperlocals. But engagement metrics for news – even allowing for sometimes wildly conflicting numbers produced from different methodologies – are mostly grim. The average Facebook user spends a half hour-plus on that paragon of digital engagement. News sites get minutes that can be counted on one hand. Taking into account murky Web analytics, only a fraction of that time – about three minutes for most hyperlocal news sites, according to Alexa – represents engagement where the site has captured the user’s undivided attention…