Why the Commoditization of Local Information Is an Opportunity for Journalism

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 sokoloffm@rjionline.org or @MattSokoloff on Twitter.

  1. TomGrubisich
    April 5, 2013


    The “why” is, as you say, often missing from news stories. To get the “why,” community journalists and their news sites should be more proactive in inviting the community to collaborate on answers. News sites can use self-publishing tools in more welcoming ways to engage the community on issues that can’t be adequately handled with a who-what-where article. On school quality, for example, there are a lot of experts in the community – parents, future parents and even grandparents, teachers, school administrators and researchers, business people, retirees who stay well informed and, not least, students. They should all be encouraged to engage in community discussion and debate that is channeled into action aimed at developing better learning for all. But at how many community news sites do you see this kind of interaction? The sites, and the journalists directing their coverage, should be creating the platforms where this can happen. Everybody would win, including the news sites and their journalists.

    1. Matt Sokoloff
      April 6, 2013

      The problem is the true experts in the community aren’t always the ones who just show up and post. You have to call them and ask the right questions. For example on the article I linked to someone who has run a county campaign in the past and could share if the ethics violations were just a mistake probably won’t post unless asked. Also with schools everyone has an opinion based on where they sit in the community. We need journalists to synthesize those opinions into meaning…no matter what I still think it almost always takes a professional who can spend their day working on it to get at the root of an issue.

      1. TomGrubisich
        April 7, 2013


        Community news sites are lucky to have one full-time journalist and several part-time freelancers. Often, the publisher doubles as the full-time reporter. Some sites get by with only part-time freelancers. These realities mean that community news sites don’t have the resources to spend their day synthesizing community opinion into meaning. Besides, I don’t think journalists should presume they are the primary “sense makers.” They should use their limited time to find and engage the multiple sense makers that every community has. It’s true, as you point out, that experts — say, on that state of learning at the local K-12 schools — don’t always show up to post what they know. But is that an immutable natural law or a networking challenge that can be met through better engagement practices? The fast-growing “liquid democracy” movement is using digital networking to empower the public and integrate it into the political process (along with the traditional role players of government and special interests). To become relevant again, journalism should be promoting this healthy evolution, not presuming to stand in for the public.

        1. Matt Sokoloff
          April 8, 2013

          I guess at the end of the day I don’t think news websites/brands will be where the social conversation is happening around a community. There will be exceptions to that but on the whole those conversations will take place where users want them to happen…most likely facebook and maybe something like NextDoor. I don’t think that journalism has a future in message boards. I do think they can take that and provide analysis. If the community news site has too small of a staff to provide valuable information that I can’t get anywhere else than they won’t have a staff for much longer. Right now it might work because municipalities, schools and volunteers aren’t jumping in to fill the void on the what is happening question…but they will and then that community news site will be adding no value….unless they provide larger analysis. Ben is right that “resources are limited, but those resources ought to be directed at creating context and narrative” If they aren’t….you won’t last into the future. BTW I think it’s great for newspapers sites to be the “forum” for conversation but that can’t be the strategic difference because someone will come and create a better forum and then what?

          1. TomGrubisich
            April 9, 2013

            It’s too soon to nail down “best practices” on how community journalism should relate to a public that is becoming, albeit in fits and starts, more engaged on what to do about issues like K-12 school quality and health and wellness (locally focused). But developing such best practices, I believe, is essential to journalism finding new relevance in this digital age of new inter-connections. I doubt Facebook, which seems more geared to ‘I”-centric photo slide shows, will be the preferred platform for community-centric, action-focused engagement. Maybe hyperlocal news sites won’t be that platform, but community journalism had better make sure, one way or another, it’s part of what happens.

      2. April 7, 2013

        FWIW – Sure resources are limited, but those resources ought to be directed at creating context and narrative. This is really true up and down the media industry. Take this publication for example – Earnings results and big news for almost all the big players is all over the place so I’m here to see the news contextualized for the local focused community. This is extremely important as my interest has become a part of my identity. And my local interest has become my part of my identity. If a community newspaper doesn’t reflect the local perspective and a sense that I am part of that – I’ll stop caring, reading, commenting, sharing or advertising.

  2. Elaine
    April 8, 2013

    In my experience, readers don’t come to a news site to comment in a vacuum, they come to respond to well-written, well-reported stories that provide compelling information or context as a jumping off point for reader discussion and input. Can reporters sometimes glean ideas from readers’ comments? Certainly. Will better platforms lead to a higher caliber of discussion? Doubtful.

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