This is a departure from my normal focus on political coverage, but I got my start in local news, I think local news is essential for our democracy, and I’ve had some ideas knocking around my head for a while now that I just wanted to share.
The upsurge of civic-minded, community-focused local news organizations is a rare bright spot in an otherwise dismal landscape for the news industry.
But they aren’t reinventing local news fast enough. Too much of what they do is derivative of the old print-constrained methods. Here are four ways I think local news sites could break from the past (while honoring it), embrace the new reality of the always-on always-locatable news-and-information consumer, and become essential, multiple-times-a-day destinations for their communities.
Location, location, location
News publishers used to know only one thing about their readers: that they lived somewhere within their circulation area. Now, with so many people consuming news from mobile devices, publishers can know site visitors’ location down to a matter of feet — as well as their demographics and their interests.
As a result, a great local news site can get really, really local. In fact it has to.
That means literally telling people what’s going on around them: What they need to know, with high geographic relevance, and including information that only a local news site can offer.
The bad news, of course, is that the people in charge of the news industry over the last three decades let Big Tech swoop in and not just steal their revenue streams, but commoditize and aggregate some of the most essential geographically-specific news data imaginable: data pertaining to weather, traffic, sports, finance, entertainment, real estate, travel, classified ads, and so on. These days, you can get better and more immediate localized information from Yahoo or Google than from your local news site.
But now it’s time to turn the tables. It’s time for local news sites to aggregate the platforms by micro-geography.
Think about it like building a VR overlay, just minus the VR (at least for now.)
That starts by meticulously geocoding everything the newsroom produces. But it also means gathering as much local information as possible from every source imaginable — from AutoTrader to Zillow, and from the city health inspectors to the federal government — and slicing and dicing it by micro-geography.
When someone passes by a restaurant, the site should push its own review along with data from Yelp, local food blogs, and the health department. Users should be able to see who’s selling what on Craigslist or Etsy near them, and what nearby friends are posting on Facebook. There should be links to local social-media influencers.
(While they’re at it, they should look for stories in all that data — using AI to find unusual trends in crime, home sales, home valuations, grocery prices, voting, car registration, whatever.)
Local news organizations should create yet more local data feeds by creating mechanisms for local experts and institutions to supply the information they have – neighborhood associations, high schools, nursing homes, large apartment complexes, community centers, libraries. (Build them their own wikis to encourage their participation.)
The goal is an app that is one-stop shopping for truly local news and information. Wherever they are, the local news app will tell people what’s going on around them. Wherever they go, or wherever they think they want to go, they can find out what they want.
The technological hurdles to achieve this are not insignificant – but a lot of the tech companies are feeling guilty about having destroyed local news, and might be game for working with content management systems like Newspack or intermediary groups like the Institute for Nonprofit News to give local journalists the tools they need.
My strong belief is that these tools, combined with trusted local news and expertly curated by people who know and love their neighborhoods, would make local news apps the must-have and always-on option for anyone interested in what’s going on around them – which is pretty much everybody.
The Daily Thing
This is sort of the opposite of micro-local. It’s macro-local. That’s important, too.
Every local news site needs to be compelling — and in this day and age that means it has to have a feature that will bring visitors to return every day in order not to miss it.
It needs to be addictive, like Wordle, but with news.
What that means for a local news site is a compelling daily story – or question – combined with active community participation. Every day, one story should be identified as the day’s talker, then set up with the tools and the curation to let people talk about it. That doesn’t simply mean comments. Readers should be able to annotate specific parts of a story and contribute views or information, with live participation by the reporter. They should be able to submit corrections and related links.
“What have they got today?” needs to be the question the people in the community ask themselves first thing in the morning.
It doesn’t always have to be a major news story. It could be a story correcting a rumor or exposing a disinformation campaign. It could be an installment in an ongoing, serialized storytelling experience. It could be a particularly compelling photo. It could be a lament about the things the organizations doesn’t know but would like to. It could be a primer, a FAQ, a timeline, or a reporter musing about their beat.
Best of all, it could be a crusade. (Yes, a crusade!)
The residents of an area need to know that their local news site is on their side — that it wants the community to become better, stronger, happier.
Journalists used to crusade for the betterment of their communities. As newsrooms became more aloof, crusading got a bad rap. But a modern local news site shouldn’t hold itself above its community, it should get right down in the trenches and fight.
Crusading starts with letting community residents identify their most pressing problems, then looking at solutions. It doesn’t necessarily mean advocating a specific way forward – it certainly doesn’t necessarily mean becoming partisan – but it does require identifying who’s trying to solve the problem and who’s getting in the way. And then it requires a relentless, determined quest to find some sort of resolution.
Protect Local Retail
There’s one crusade every local news organization should get behind: saving local businesses.
In every region in America, vast amounts of local money are getting sucked out of the area and sent to Amazon, Wal-Mart, and other giant corporations.
Every dollar that leaves a community for Jeff Bezos’s pocket or to the Walton family or China is a dollar less for local workers, local businesses, and local government.
By contrast, if the money stayed locally, its effectiveness would multiply as it passes from person to person and business to business.
We’ve gotten numb to this. But a great local news organization should fight back – and try to protect local businesses from predation.
That means mobilizing against monopoly chains, and reporting on how they impoverish the community.
It means building community spirit and pride in local businesses.
It means embracing the uniqueness of the local economy.
It means writing about local businesses, not uncritically, but in the context of how they keep the money local. How many people do they hire? What do they do with the money they make? What’s the multiplier effect of shopping there vs. shopping at a chain store?
It’s also an opportunity to restore the main revenue stream that used to sustain local news operations: connecting local buyers and sellers. Local businesses should post their sales and specials on news sites, and those news sites should make sure that information is being seen by the most likely potential customers – based on geography, demographics, or a previously stated interest in purchasing something specific.
If convenience is an issue, a news site could even potentially help with delivery. Newspapers could turn their trucks into delivery vans. Or maybe the local post office can form arrangements with local retailers to offer same-day or next-day delivery to nearby customers. Or maybe the solution is some form of co-op.
Reclaim and Enhance ‘Man on the Street’ Interviews with AI
They used to be a staple of local reporting: You’d send out the intern and a photographer to ask a bunch of people on the street a topical question, then you’d run their mugshots and their answers.
Imagine doing that now, but to scale, and presented in a robust, AI-assisted way.
To be clear, I am not a fan of using generative AI to write copy. But in this case, I propose using AI to help pull out relevant answers from a database of responses.
So: What you do is you send out an army of interns with their phones to ask a large number of people in your community a number of questions – some timely, some evergreen.
You ask them about the latest kerfuffle, but you also ask them what they love about their neighborhoods, what they think could be improved and how. You ask them about how they grew up, their values, their hopes, and their political views.
Then you partner with one of the several AI shops currently eager to do something to help local news. (I can help with that.) And you create what is effectively a database of individual views, searchable in all sorts of ways – including by using natural language.
What do people think about the political issue of the day? What do they think about smart growth? What do people love about their neighborhoods?
In response, you get a gallery of video mugshots and transcribed responses.
I have incredible admiration for the people who do the work of local news day in and day out. It is a very tough and often thankless job.
And none of the things I’m suggesting would be easy, either.
But I think that a renewed focus on local news — most notably, thanks to the $500 million pledge to by the new consortium called Press Forward — calls for a renewed look at alternative ways to do business. I wish us all luck.
See also my 2009 series of posts on local news: