There’s a ‘Metropolitan Revolution,’ but Where’s Hyperlocal?

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2845-1-metropolitan-revolution-howWhile there’s gridlock in Washington, D.C., communities all over the U.S., big and small, affluent and struggling, are getting things done. That’s what two restlessly curious urbanologists discovered for their new book “The Metropolitan Revolution.”

This revolution presents great opportunities for community news sites to make stronger connections with their audiences. But first, a bit of background on the transformation, as explained by authors Bruce Katz, founder of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, and his colleague at the Washington think tank, Jennifer Bradley:

“Like all great revolutions, this one has been catalyzed by a revelation: Cities and metropolitan areas are on their own. The cavalry is not coming. Mired in partisan division and rancor, the federal government appears incapable of taking bold action to restructure our economy and grappled with changing demography and rising inequality … metros are becoming more ambitious in their design, more assertive in their advocacy, more expansive in their reach. To borrow from Pogo, metro leaders have met the solution, and it is them.”

Katz and Bradley are not exaggerating. Writing this weekly column, I make virtual visits to many communities, and see how they’re innovating, mostly with their own financial and other resources and sometimes against long odds.

Three examples I’ve encountered recently:

•    In New York, Mayor Bloomberg’s administration has launched a $20 billion project – “A Stronger, More Resilient New York City” – to protect the city against another Hurricane Sandy, which in 2012 wrecked homes and businesses from Staten Island to Lower Manhattan to Hunts Point in the Bronx to Red Hook in Brooklyn to the Rockaways in Queens.

•    In Washington, DC, the money-starved regional mass transit agency has begun an all-out campaign, “Metro Momentum,” to raise $6.4 billion in capital funding to meet the long-deferred needs of its bus and rail ridership (now 1.3 million daily and projected to grow to 1.6 million daily in 25 years).

•    In Ann Arbor, Mich., a city of 114,000 and home to the vaunted University of Michigan, business and community groups are trying to turn around the decades-long exodus of young people by creating more jobs and the high-density, downtown housing that millennials, who stay single longer, often prefer

Community news sites in New York, Washington and Ann Arbor should have been all over these stories. The initiatives will directly affect many residents – the perfect situation for sites that want to more fully engage their audiences. But the sites I looked at stayed on the sidelines or provided perfunctory coverage that missed important things happening in their backyard.

In New York, DNAinfo did an okay overall story on the Bloomberg report, but its zoned editions covering the five boroughs didn’t carry anything on the specific initiatives that are designed to protect neighborhoods that were hard hit by Sandy flooding.

The city’s announcement of the project, “A Stronger, More Resilient New York City,” is loaded with information, including great graphics, on how “integrated flood protection systems” and other initiatives would prevent or at least minimize damage from storm surges worse than Sandy (see image below grabbed from map). Homeowners and businesses in especially vulnerable areas like Red Hook – one of DNAinfo’s featured Brooklyn neighborhoods – need this kind of pinpointed information to help them plan their futures.

For Patch’s audience in Reston in Northern Virginia, the big news was that even if the transit agency gets all the funding it wants, trains on the new Silver Line subway coming to Reston in late 2013 will be packed beyond acceptable levels – and it won’t get better during the next 25 years, but worse (!). The headline Reston Patch missed: “There’ll Be No Silver Lining for Many Reston Metro Commuters.”

But Reston Patch ignored this information from the report, focusing instead on metro-wide details that mean much less to Reston. Responding to my query, Editor Karen Goff wrote: “We’ll do that some other time.”

In Ann Arbor, the Chronicle promotes itself as the go-to site for civic and local government coverage. But it carries little meaningful news about what Ann Arbor SPARK, the local economic development agency, is doing to promote jobs and housing that would keep more of the city’s young people from migrating elsewhere. Last month, SPARK reported how its work helped create 628 jobs in Ann Arbor and retain 1,135 existing ones. It would have been a great story about what these jobs mean for the economy of Ann Arbor, including home values, and its quality of life. A five-minute phone call to SPARK would have given the Chronicle the impact stats for the story. But the Chronicle went about its business writing lengthy stories about “the definition of ‘sidewalk'” and other city council minutiae.

Community news sites don’t always have to invest in major staffing and other resources to report how the “Metropolitan Revolution” is playing out in their communities. In the three examples above, public and nonprofit agencies and other bodies supplied virtually all the information – text and visuals – that would generate engagement-producing stories; the kind advertisers are supposed to like. All it would take editorially is labor-efficient curating and copying and pasting.

But maybe we’ll have to wait for another revolution to come — this one to community newsrooms.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.