Big Picture Stories Make Hyperlocals More Valuable

“How’m I doin’?” was Ed Koch’s incessant greeting to New Yorkers of all stations during his three terms as mayor in the late 1970s and 1980s. It wasn’t just a politician’s gambit, like the handshake or autograph signing. Koch believed in putting government performance to the test — not just at election time, but every day.

Koch’s question echoed in my head as I was putting together Street Fight’s directory of hyperlocal publications in New York City last week. The 46 sites I listed were, I concluded, more than making up for the news gaps created by the steady shrinking of the editorial staffs of the city’s beleaguered dailies. Browsing through the sites I was continually struck by how much news the hyperlocals — many of them with staffs that could fit in the broom closets of any of the metro papers — found or generated. But what I didn’t find very often were stories echoing Koch’s question, which, given the amount of data available to measure performance, should be resonating louder and more insistently than ever in this deep, stubborn recession.

When the U.S. Census Bureau announced earlier this month that poverty was more extensive in the U.S. under new measuring criteria, I assumed NYC hyperlocals would be all over that story from a community angle. After all, historical poverty rates in the city are about 50% higher than in the U.S., with 248 census tracts in “extreme poverty.” How do the Census Bureau’s revised figures affect the city? Are more neighborhoods in extreme poverty, and, if so, where are they? This is the perfect story for a heat map that would keep users clicking away. Poverty information is easily accessible on the city planning department’s site, but, as far as I could see, none of the city’s hyperlocals attempted to localize the story. Nor did they try to examine economic conditions in their communities to test the contrarian report in the NY Times  that concluded the Census Bureau findings were overstated.

The Bronx Ink, which covers the poorest borough in the city, is operated by students of the redoubtable Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.  Despite the journalistic talent it can marshal, the Bronx Ink not only passed on the poverty story, but fumbled another, earlier story just as important – the city’s decision to close the Bronx Academy High School, a six-year experiment to help some of the city’s worst-performing students.  The Ink covered the decision to close the academy, but its story leaves big, unanswered questions, one being why does a school labeled as “persistently failing,” gets official city ratings from students, parents and teachers on academic expectations and other key performance criteria that are significantly and consistently higher than those at other under-achieving schools in the city. (This information can be accessed with three easy computer keyboard clicks.)

Other major community indicators, like health and wellness and foreclosures are covered just as spottily by NYC hyperlocals, even though data to develop stories showing progress or decline is becoming easier to find.

The issue is not journalistic do-goodism.  Big-picture community stories make hyperlocals more valuable sources of news, which, in turn, generates not only more traffic, but more engaged traffic. Engaged users stay on a site longer — a habit that appeals to advertisers.

The big picture is the big challenge for hyperlocals everywhere.  At one- and two-person operations — which most sites are — the temptation is powerful to focus on granular, topical stories — holiday toy collections, volunteer community cleanups, charity festivals.  These stories are an essential part of the DNA of hyperlocals — most of them won’t get attention anywhere else.  But if they want to be valuable, hyperlocals have to take enough time to sketch out their community’s big picture, so they can show “how it’s doin’.”

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.

  1. November 22, 2011

    Actually, those are the stories that the big moneyed citywide/regional news outlets should be doing if THEY want to continue to have a raison d’etre. Instead, many of them waste their time trying to duplicate what we are doing on a neighborhood level. Just one example of many – A TV station here, charged with covering an entire 22-county area, did an entire 2-minute package on a mailbox that somebody stole in our neighborhood. That was the only story the reporter in question did that entire night, as far as I know. Probably not her fault – lack of vision on management’s part (coming from TV, I know). It’s a big news ecosystem out there. Big organizations have data specialists. They should be doing this, and offering to smaller orgs “here’s how you can break it out; we’ve done the legwork.” We’ve had a few explorations along those lines with our Net-J partner the Seattle Times. – Tracy

    1. November 22, 2011

      A lot of big-picture data doesn’t require specialists to process.  As I said in my column, some of the key data about the Bronx Academy HS was just three clicks away.  You don’t need a specialist from a big moneyed site to do that.

  2. November 22, 2011

    When you start to talk about “localizing” a story I have a couple of thoughts. In my newspaper assignment editor life I told many a reporter to localize a regional story, too often with vapid results regardless of how much guidance was given. Once in the hyperlocal world I think I hit on the reason. If the issue were really meaningful in our community we would already be reporting on it, probably in a hundred other ways. Localized regional or national stories often come across as forced. At the newspaper we thought this passed as local content. I can’t pass that off on my websites now. If the regional issue is meaningful on the hyperlocal level it will grow organically into our coverage. I can’t afford to risk the time to crunch numbers to write a story that says “stats show regional poverty not as big of an issue here” for example. Besides, my readers likely already have a sense of the reality anyway. Thinking that hyperlocal’s mission is to “localize” misses the point to me. It implies an inherent non localness. We deal in local stories. Why would you have to localize a local story? If my coverage area is experiencing poverty at greater levels that’s going to be covered all the time in all of those so-called little stories we do — and taken together  in more detail and depth  than any localized big media story will. For hyperlocals, the big picture is painted with a thousand little pictures.

    1. November 22, 2011

      I’m not so sure that hyperlocals whose communities include high levels of poverty write about it “all the time” with “little stories.”  Those little stories often require a big commitment of time, which most hyperlocals, with their small staffs, can’t afford.  Besides, even if hyperlocals could and did write a lot of little stories about poverty, that would add up to the big picture only if people were willing to connect the dots.  For decades, newspapers in New York and elsewhere wrote thousands upon thousands of cameos about the hardships of poverty in urban and rural areas, but it took Michael Harrington and his big-picture book “The Other America,” published in 1962, to  get the country’s attention, and begin a series of social reforms.      

  3. November 22, 2011

    Great facet of the hyperlocal conversation Tom. One thing I think is interesting about the hyperlocal site is that they claim (regardless of wether they deliver) on being a local lens on national news. Do hyperlocals think they can be an alternative to to big media news? Maybe in a world where all news is like the API news wire, except its distributed by Google and Yahoo, they may have the value add that some people may find more compelling than CNN, FOX and MSNBC.  

  4. November 23, 2011

    I like this approach for some stories. We don’t do a lot of it, but that is because we tend to favor beat reporting to trend stories.

    That said, we have had lots of engagement and readership on certain trend stories that have major local impacts like homelessness and medical marijuana.

    1. November 23, 2011

      Ben, I agree that trend stories work only selectively.  Poverty works, especially when the trend keeps bending up, as it has been through a decade-plus. As poverty data gets better, which it does, stories can be more informative and nuanced.  Any hyperlocal in a city with high poverty should be tracking the trend.  Sacramento County’s poverty rate is 15.3%, compared to 14.2% for California —

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Street Fight Daily: 11.22.11