Why the Commoditization of Local Information Is an Opportunity for Journalism

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dataOne of my journalism professors at Mizzou would often pound into us that journalism was not only about “who, what, when, where, why and how” but also “so what?” and “who cares?” Of those eight questions, it’s really the final four we should be talking about when we’re talking about the changes we are seeing in local and hyperlocal news.

It’s no secret that there are now loads and loads of places you can go online and find out what is happening in your neighborhood or city. Some have seen this shift of local information — from something that was unique to newspapers to a commodity that is available from a variety of sources — as the end to local news. But I actually think it presents a great opportunity for journalists to do what they do best: put information into context and tell us why it matters.

The recent push by governments to put more and more data online means that anyone can find out what happened at the city council meeting, what buildings have gotten permits in their neighborhood, and even see what problems citizens are reporting to their government. Street Fight’s Tom Grubisich recently pointed out in his column that some of these apps cut the newspaper out of the conversation between citizens and their government.

You don’t have to look far to see the shift happening. Organizations like Code for America and the National Day of Civic Hacking are encouraging people in the tech community to build apps to help engage citizens with their government. Even with EveryBlock.com shutting down, the original code still exists for communities to make their own local version. In my city a team has built a way to tweet out police dispatch calls to users based on their neighborhood. In Cook County, Ill., a city council member created budget visualization application the allows citizens to understand where their money is being spent — the code for that is now available for anyone to reuse in their own city. And we’ve written as well about NextDoor which provides a forum for neighbors.

All of these services help to answer “who, what, when and where” but what they usually miss (intentionally) is “how, why, so what, and who cares.” This is where professional journalists and news organizations can and will step up.

As local news sites turn to paid content models (and those that don’t constantly struggle to be more efficient at producing news) it will be essential for these organizations to rely on the existing data that’s out there, or to use their own automation or outsourcing for the the lower-level information. Instead, they’ll increasingly focus their time on helping users gain meaning from that data and, in cases where it’s necessary, facilitating change in their communities.

We’d like to think that this is happening already. As journalists we pride ourselves in bringing meaning and context  to our stories. However, in the daily churn of a newsroom we sometimes aren’t able to get down deep enough. I am amazed almost daily when I read stories in a local paper from a reporter that I know to be a fantastic reporter — and the contents are little more than what I could have gathered from reading a row in a database or an agenda item on the minutes from a public meeting. While it’s essential from a public good standpoint to get that information out, it’s essential from a profitability standpoint for that newspaper to provide context and value-add.

Two recent articles I read provide great examples. One was a story about a recently elected official who is being investigated for ethics violations. In the story we got the who, what, when and where. As a reader, though, I walked away not knowing if this is something that I should be concerned about, or how often these investigations happen. The official claimed it was an accident, but no information was provided to help us understand if one might actually make a mistake like that. Sure there were quotes and it’s even possible that it took some great journalism to find out that the investigation was even happening, but I walked away knowing there was much more to the story. Maybe it was left out because of space in the paper, or maybe because there just wasn’t time for the reporter do dive into it.

Another case that I come across often are briefs about new buildings being built. I’m concerned here that a reporter is spending her time taking minutes from our local municipal planning board and writing a quick brief about the building. This is a clear example where some automation or outsourcing should be in play. Doing so would allow the reporter more time to find out the details of these buildings understand the trends at play and write more content about how the new development will impact life in the city. We need good journalists spending less time on the “who, what, when and where” when it’s already publicly available.

It’s interesting to note that one of the biggest changes being made at the OC Register is that they are moving from an online-first mentality to a quality-first. I think at the heart of this shift is an understanding that readers aren’t going to pay for the “who, what, when or where” but they will pay for the context and meaning that professional journalists can bring.

It’s time we stop looking at all of the free sources of local information as a threat to our business model but instead as an opportunity to differentiate ourselves and show value.

Matt Sokoloff is a 2012-2013 Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow working on a project to help local independent websites and bloggers gain additional revenue opportunities. His background is in building digital products for media organizations. Read more about his current work here and respond in the comments or to [email protected] or @MattSokoloff on Twitter.