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

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.

  1. December 4, 2012

    While I’m a fan of Jim’s work both at WNYC and NY Times, I can’t even begin to express my disappointment.

    “The virtue of established news organizations … is that the genuinely worthwhile values of journalism are brought to bear”

    Really, Jim? Please don’t diminish the work of my colleagues at bootstrapped hyperlocals by suggesting even for a moment that we don’t bring with us the “genuinely worthwhile values of journalism.” Need I even link over to the NY Times metro section’s umpteenth article about how the vegan soy cupcake-cream covered steak sandwiches in Williamsburg show that Brooklyn is no longer blue collar? And this it the NYT; if I were to point at the examples of “genuinely worthwhile values of journalism” at other legacy operations, I wouldn’t have a moment to spare on another story about the latest restaurant to open in Sheepshead Bay.

    And about that… perhaps the failing of large institutional players in the hyperlocal space is the assumption that you’ve got the market cornered on “genuinely worthwhile values of journalism,” or that every story need be served with a glob of gravitas and a dollop of condescension. The chronicling of a community’s most basic progression – business openings and closings, street pavings, major real estate transactions – ARE the most genuine expression of journalism. We serve to document a community, telling the story of how it is and why it is over a vast stretch of time through a trickling of information. It’s through that that we establish a record – because no one else is – for which we, and your reporters, can draw to develop those more “genuinely worthwhile” stories, the kind of tl;dr stuff that unfortunately ends up serving no one but other reporters and a smattering of wonks.

    But that’s not to say those stories are bad, Jim. Keep in mind, I’m a fan of yours. But this is disappointing because it suggests you miss what truly is the most “genuinely worthwhile value of journalism”: to help people.

    Restaurant openings help people. They help residents find nearby places to eat, they help store owners stay in business. More importantly, they keep money in the community. On the whole, our information – at least here at Sheepshead Bites – is selected to help readers live their lives, to make better decisions, to explain and uncover, and, often overlooked, to uplift and give hope as often (or more often) as we do the opposite. As media outlets serving intensely local audiences, and providing the most relevant, close-to-home info available, hyperlocals are the only ones poised to deliver that information.

    I hope you reconsider – or at least qualify – your statement that only “established news organizations” exhibit “genuinely worthwhile values of journalism,” because, if not, I fear that you’ve proven just the opposite.

    Ned Berke
    Editor, Sheepshead Bites (http://www.SheepsheadBites.com)
    Boardmember, Local Independent Online News Association (http://www.lionpublishers.com/)

    1. Warren Webster
      December 5, 2012

      Couldn’t agree with you more. If a local site’s mission is to simply help people navigate all aspects of life that are specific to the area in which they live, there are an awful lot of things that fall into that bucket that might not be what a traditionalist or an “established news organization” would call worthwhile. But if a new restaurant opens up in my neighborhood, I definitely want to know about it, and anything else that will help me make smarter, more informed decisions – whether it’s a voting decision, or a where-to-eat decision. All this information has value.

      -Warren Webster, Patch.com

  2. December 4, 2012


    If you’re holding up the New York Times as an example of important and relevant journalism, you’re sorely mistaken.

    In fact, the NYT (“The Paper” in the plummy, self-important tones of those who’ve pulled down a salary there) is so lacking in relevance to me that the only recent story I can recall reading there is a report on a new Times Square restaurant.

    The giant chain-owned media are after one thing: profits. Certainly it’s important to run a healthy business, but there are many “genuinely worthwhile values of journalism” that are abandoned by the chains in their now-futile pursuit of profits.

    I see hundreds of publisher of local news sites who are just as concerned about accurately reporting on their communities as they are about pursing a buck. Local ownership and focus are returning local news to its roots. When the local segment of the industry was thriving, individual publishers owned outlets, not giant corporations more focused on their stock prices, quarterly reports and excutives’ retirement packages.

    On TucsonSentinel.com, I don’t recall ever running a report on a restaurant opening; I’d rather be digging through public records. But if I had a reporter with a strong voice on the food beat, I’d surely put them to work.

    One of the “genuine values” of journalism is basing one’s statements on facts, rather than heaping piles of supposition.

    How many stories on restaurants did the Times run last week? Let’s take a look, shall we? A quick Google shows, after eliminating the stories with an obvious broader news focus:

    Pete Wells, Restaurant Critic, Answers Readers’ Questions

    Restaurant Review: Dirt Candy in the East Village

    Restaurant Report: La Table d’Aki in Paris

    A Closing Ends an Era, and a Deli War

    A Review of Truck, a Restaurant in Bedford, NY

    A Review of the Chelsea Restaurant, in Fairfield, Conn.

    A Review of the Cuban Restaurant and Bar, in Hoboken

    Eleven Madison Park Drops Its Minimalist Grid Menu

    Striking Setting for Food of Uzbekistan

    Off the Menu

    The Season for Shellfish

    Table Talk | The Acorn in Vancouver

    Edible Selby | Batter Up

    A Culinary Gateway to Cape Town

    How to Make Classic Potato Latkes

    France Abuzz Over the Whopper’s Return

    Hungry City: La Tarte Flambée in Yorkville

    O’Keeffe’s Hawaii

    Dining Calendar

    The Day: Corner Tree Farms and Mexican Food

    This Week in Small Business: Cliffhanger!

    The Happiness Project

    Tailgating Recipe: Mike’s Thai Style Baby Back Ribs

    Weekend Fare

    Where You Can Talk, or Just Listen In

    While the Times certainly seems to be doing important work on the restaurant beat, it’s more than supposition to state that the adherents of stagnant major media have let their hubris become disproportionate to their significance to the world as a whole.


    Dylan Smith

    Editor & Publisher

    Local Independent Online News Publishers

  3. December 4, 2012

    Another legacy guy who is trapped in his own little box-like mindset.

    If it were worth my time, I could dig through our archives and find dozens of stories that I’m sure Mr. Schachter and other legacy-think journalists would find “relevant” and “important.”

    I could also pull out dozens of restaurant (and other business) openings that, if you really know community news (let alone anything about community), you know are also important and relevant.

  4. December 4, 2012

    Good for a laugh at least.

  5. December 4, 2012

    Because stories like this one in the New York Times about the man bun express the worthwhile values of journalism: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/fashion/in-brooklyn-committing-to-a-man-bun.html?_r=0

    Many of the people you belittle with your patronizing comments Jim are veteran journalists. We cover planning and government issues, and yes, we sometimes cover restaurant openings. My publication PlanetPrinceton.com is the only local site to use the state’s Open Public Records Act to obtain documents. Many of us play a watchdog function and some soon will be the main source of news in their towns as the legacy media folds. During Hurricane Sandy, it was the local independent sites readers could depend on for real time important information, not legacy media.

  6. benilfeld
    December 4, 2012

    At The Sacramento Press we run lots of restaurant opening / closing stories. We didn’t start that way, but our audience really responds to these stories.

    Perhaps we post too many. I think our job is to constantly evolve what we cover and experiment.

    I try to stay open minded as to what “matters.” We need to take cues from our community, but have a more holistic approach past just drives pageviews. So if you want to experiment and respond to your community, you really have to define a variety of metrics to gauge engagement.

    In our experience, restaurant opening stories tend to drive pageviews and have a strong long tail. They are also strong in social media sharing. They are poor in terms of comments and time on site where politically focused stories shine.

  7. December 5, 2012

    I struck a nerve!

    Nothing I said to this reporter implied that hyper locals ONLY write about restaurant openings, or that ONLY legacy media bring journalistic values to community journalism. Legacy media have largely failed communities, and intrepid publishers and editors like Ned and Howard are filling the yawning gaps left by old media’s failure to adapt.

    If I ever spoke for The New York Times, I don’t now. But I don’t think anyone covers himself or herself in glory by directing the kind of vitriol that some commenters here have aimed at The Times.

    I just want to see more great journalism done – by all of us. How clean are the kitchens at those new restaurants? Enquiring readers want to know!

    1. December 5, 2012

      Thank you, Jim, for responding and clarifying. For the record, I still disagree with you on what qualifies as journalistic values in the community niche – or at least how those values are expressed – but I do appreciate you taking the time to address our concerns about your initial statements.

    2. December 5, 2012


      Thanks for responding.

      You said, “a lot of startups in the local news space don’t focus on things that matter,” and gave the example of restaurant openings. If you’d like to expand on the other things local online news sites cover that don’t matter, I’m all ears.

      You’re also quoted as saying, “The virtue of established news organizations… is that the genuinely worthwhile values of journalism are brought to bear and the resources are brought to bear.”

      If there’s not meant to be an implication that news outlets that aren’t “established” aren’t founded on “genuinely worthwhile values,” then forgive our collective inference. That’s certainly how that comes across.

      Rather than being so readily dismissive, legacy news organizations should be eager to learn why independent local news sites are growing in an environment that see so much of the chain media faltering.

      While small local news sites (and some aren’t so small these days) don’t have the vast array of staff and resources that the majors have at their disposal, pound-for-pound they are producing amazing reporting on a daily basis.

      You are correct when you say we’re “after the same thing.” The same thing hasn’t worked for some time now. We’re building something better — and I hope media at all levels can find a way forward that best serves our readers/viewers/listeners and our communities at large.

      1. December 5, 2012

        I seem to have dropped a “not” from a line: You are correct when you say we’re not “after the same thing.”
        There is now an opening on a copy desk ; )

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