WNYC’s Schachter: Many Hyperlocal Startups Don’t Focus on ‘Things That Matter’

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During his 17-year career with The New York Times, newsman Jim Schachter filled a lot of different roles, starting as a business editor, moving to the culture desk and the magazine, serving as an editor for digital initiatives, and finally winding up as associate managing editor.  Among other accomplishments, he helped launch the Times’ erstwhile hyperlocal experiment The Local and established a number of other community news partnerships with local news agencies around the country.  In June, Schachter left the Gray Lady for a newly created position as VP of news at New York public radio station WNYC, where he is working with the reporting staff to find local stories that resonate in New York and beyond.

While laughing about his “storied four-month career” in radio, Schachter spoke with Street Fight recently about the difference between local reporting at the paper and on the airwaves, innovation in the hyperlocal space, and why many local news startups aren’t focusing on what matters.

What is your main job these days at WNYC?
My mission after getting hired at WNYC was to bring a spirit of enterprising journalism to the newsroom. I’m helping to take what is a beloved local institution that has a strong and growing national profile and try[ing] to build that out on a number of key fronts. The heart of it is the reporting, storytelling, and adept use of new platforms and approaches as they materialize.

Radio is an interesting challenge in that it’s an inherently local medium — at least [it was] until the rise of Internet radio. Can you talk about finding local stories that resonate nationally?
I guess I challenge your premise. Radio has been a national medium ever since David Sarnoff. WNYC is a proud part of a very, very popular radio network of National Public Radio. The notion of local stations being part of a bigger picture has been part of the radio landscape for a long time. At WNYC, that takes a few different forms. One is that we have national programs that we produce. We have a national profile that way.

In terms of the news, our journalists contribute to NPR. Our stories were very much in evidence in the aftermath of Sandy. We have one of the largest newsrooms in the public radio space nationally, so a fair number of our stories get picked up and broadcast around the country. The critical thing is that we’re in New York, and things that are interesting to New Yorkers often have legs. In that sense, a local story here has a lot of salience in a lot of places, either because things that happen locally are interesting elsewhere or because what we’re reporting on is a national or globally significant person, place, [or] thing that happens to be in New York. That’s another way that national and local are not in conflict.

Beyond that, there’s Internet radio. You can listen to WNYC anywhere on Earth. When we look at our web traffic, we have a lot of audience well beyond the tristate region. I’d like to think that it’s not just because interesting things happen here but because we’ve created the expectation that we’re worth seeking out. There’s an audience for us beyond the traditional geographic audience.

Are there types of local stories that work in radio that didn’t on the pages of The New York Times?
I think it’s more the differences in the medium. In print, you will go and get reactions to some news event. You can do it up really nicely on a page, run a column down the side with face, face, face, pull quote, pull quote, pull quote, or some other format. It is very, very different and a lot less impactful than what we can do on the radio where we go ask people what they think. You hear all the emotion that is behind the answer. You heard the timbre of their voice. You’re able to draw a picture. Things about the medium make certain kinds of storytelling more powerful.

The amount of coverage of restaurant openings that you see in the hyperlocal space is disproportionate to the significance of restaurant openings to the world as a whole. That is probably a little uncharitable but not too much.

When I got here this summer, there was a spate of shootings around the city where children got killed. They got in the way of a bullet. We took a vow that we were going to tell the story of every child in New York City who was killed by gunfire. Fortunately, there have only been three since we took that vow. Unfortunately, one of them was this weekend. Our reporter Kathleen Horan is out today talking to the family of that 17-year-old kid who got shot dead last weekend.

As a reporter and an editor, I’ve done those stories for newspapers. It is an honorable thing to do, but it is very difficult to convey the combination of the everydayness of one person’s life and the monumentalness of the sudden and untoward end of that person’s life. If The New York Times does that story, most often it’s going to be 10 inches buried in the Metro section, whereas [on radio] you can tell that story with the emotional heart that it deserves and it can be quite prominent as part of our report on a given day. I know the reaction the we’ve gotten to the ones that we’ve run so far is “Thank you for caring. Thank you for elevating that person’s life to my attention as a listener or as a reader of the website.” There’s a power that the human story can absorb from radio that has been eye-opening for me.

You worked on The Locals and now you’re doing more local reporting at WYNC. Where do you think the innovations are going to come from? Is it going to be [from] big companies or smaller startups?
The only possible answer is that we don’t know. It will come most likely from an unexpected source. The virtue of established news organizations, whether it’s WYNC with SchoolBook or The New York Times with The Locals or NPR’s experiment in New Orleans, is that the genuinely worthwhile values of journalism are brought to bear and the resources are brought to bear. There’s the potential to make use of the asset that is the organization in terms of audience and brand power. The challenge for those organizations is to promote rather than stifle innovations. The upstarts may be innovative, but they may not be after the same thing.

A perhaps unfair (but I don’t think so) observation is that a lot of startups in the local news space don’t focus on things that matter. The amount of coverage of restaurant openings that you see in the hyperlocal space is disproportionate to the significance of restaurant openings to the world as a whole. That is probably a little uncharitable but not too much.

Before my arrival, WNYC had a pretty good reputation as an innovative shop, largely through the work of our data news team that John Keefe leads. I think it’s because John and other people here have set aside the expectations of how journalism has always been done and are trying something new. I think that’s very much in keeping with the spirit of public radio, but most public radio operations have tiny, tiny little newsrooms. WNYC has the virtue of having a substantial news operation, at least by the standards of public radio. When you combine that level of resources with that spirit of “what the heck” and a community that is filled with creative people, you have a pretty good formula.

Noah Davis is a senior editor at Street Fight.