Monday, March 22nd, 2010

A New New Media for Cities

Nancy Levinson, in a piece decrying architecture criticism as a global parade of junkets to starchitect buildings, notes in contrast some critics who’ve focused on a more local market:

It would mean that we’d all have to be willing somehow to deglamorize the global, to make it a measure of critical strength to commit to the local. And in fact some really good critics — Christopher Hawthorne at the Los Angeles Times, David Dillon at the Dallas Morning News and Blair Kamin at the Chicago Tribune — have already made that commitment. (Kamin’s Why Architecture Matters is subtitled “Lessons from Chicago.”)

Now I think this somewhat understates Kamin. He did just return from a trip to Dubai to cover the opening of the Burj Khalifa. If Kamin isn’t a big name part of the parade, that’s less a reflection on him – Kamin’s a fantastic writer on architecture who’d surely have many interesting things to say on global buildings – than it is of the incredible shrinking Tribune, a paper felled by the same forces destroying the whole industry: market changes, gross mismanagement, and a journalism corps that clings more stubbornly to its culture, traditions, and legacy business practices than any UAW member ever dared, that cares more about its way of life than the very survival of the profession.

But the characterization of Kamin as a fundamentally local critic is a mostly fair one. And therein lies the story.

There was a day when regional newspapers like the Chicago Tribune mattered nationally. When the thoroughly Republican Tribune turned against Richard Nixon, for example, it was a national event. No longer. No one outside Chicago cares what the Tribune thinks today. Heck, neither do most people inside Chicago.

This decline threatened to rob Chicago of its clout and indeed its voice on the national stage. But fortunately the decline of the newspaper was matched by the rise of one the greatest democratizing mediums the world has ever known, the Internet.

On the Internet, there’s virtually no barrier to entry. If you have something compelling to say, a bit of tech savvy, some street smarts, and a bit of good luck, you can create a monster platform without the backing of a major media concern. Sites as diverse as the Huffington Post, Gawker, TMZ, and Politico have proven that. With so many quality journalists out on the street, there’s already ample human capital to make it happen.

But has it happened? In Chicago and in most cities, unfortunately not.

The Obsession With Local News in Chicago

I’ve attended a lot of new media and other journalism type events in Chicago to try to network and get a flavor of what’s going on in the city. And there are only two words I ever hear in Chicago related to media: “local” and “hyper-local”.

The journalism community in Chicago is obsessed with the idea of news and media as a fundamentally local phenomenon. Who’s going to be the watchdog on Mayor Daley, or report on neighborhood happenings, seems to be the primary concern. The new media field reflects this incredibly local focus. The Windy Citizen bills itself as a local alternative to Digg or Reddit. Gapers Block is a purely local online web publication. This notion of local reached its apex with the Tribune’s own Chicago Now blog network, which only pays bloggers for page views originating from a Chicago IP address, officially declaring non-local readers worthless. Note the very names of these publications, which almost proclaim they don’t have ambitions beyond the region. That’s not to say they are bad sites – on the contrary, I read and enjoy all of them – but they are, above all, local. Others, like the Albany Park Post focus at even more granular, or so-called “hyper-local” level. Or they are branch plant operations like Huffington Post Chicago (where I have contributor status) or Chicagoist. Various old media branch plant bureaus fall into this category, though there are fewer of them by the day. The exception to all this is, of course, the Big O – but whether or not you consider Oprah a journalist is a moot point as she’s closing up shop shortly and moving to LA.

Making the Global Local

Now local isn’t all bad. We need local news and information. But local is precisely what the daily papers are already doing to try to stay afloat. They’ve more or less abandoned national and international coverage in order to focus on purely local events, sports, personalities, and moms. So why does new media replicate that model?

Believe it or not, there’s an entire world of journalism out there beyond local and hyper-local. For example, the role of the newspaper was not always about telling us who won last night’s high school hoops match. Newspapers used to explain what national and international trends and events meant to us, to our towns. They put the major events of the day in a local context.

Journalist Richard Longworth diagnosed this problem with his typical insight in his book Caught in the Middle:

As a former newspaperman, I worry about how Midwesterners will learn about the globalized world that will determine their future. Once the Midwest boasted excellent newspapers….but newspapers are failing, and it’s not just because the world has become so complex and interconnected. Newspaper publishers, panicked by falling circulation, have latched onto a report, issued by the once responsible journalism school at Northwestern University, urging papers to draw readers by stressing local news. There’s only so much space the paper [and less every day – AMR]. All over the Midwest, local news, no matter how trivial, is squeezing out the global coverage that readers need to make sense of their world.

I realized how far this had gone when I got a letter from a friend, an editor of the biggest newspaper in his Midwestern state, saying he was focusing on local news because “readers are getting national and international news from other sources. We are rebuilding our news organization into an information center that can feed a multitude of platforms – community magazines, community newspapers, the core newspaper, various web sites – with custom content that can serve communities that advertisers want to reach: communities such as young mothers who universally don’t read newspapers.”

This jargon is the background noise to a Midwestern newspaper abandoning its responsibility to its readers. If I were a resident of this editor’s city and curious about the world, I couldn’t read about it in my local paper. Instead, I’d have to read the Tribune [not anymore – AMR], or, more likely, the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. Or I could scour the Web. All carry plenty of global news, but none takes this news and applies it to the particular circumstances of my life and my city. This is what good local papers do.

Longworth is a retired foreign correspondent for the Tribune, a Tribune that no longer has any foreign correspondents. As an old school journalist, he obviously has a newspaper-centric view of the world, but his observations apply equally as well to new media, in Chicago and most other places.

One of his prescriptions for the Midwest was the creation of a serious Midwest newspaper to take on that role for the region. There’s unlikely to be any such thing as a standalone publication, at least not in the print world. But there is something that could have been – and might one day still be – that newspaper. It’s the Chicago edition of the New York Times. The NYT has started dropping in small local sections in cities like San Francisco in Chicago in an attempt to create localized editions.

In Chicago, this news is produced by a non-profit outfit called the Chicago News Cooperative, run by very senior level Tribune refugees. I had high hopes for this, but as it turned out, the Chicago section in the NYT is just more of the same local game, the Mayor Daley parking meter beat and the like. Perhaps their brief from the NYT brass requires it, but the Chicago NYT section has proven to be little more than me-too local reportage. It isn’t putting the big issues from the front page of the NYT into a Chicago or Midwest regional context. (Perhaps Rupert Murdoch, a newspaperman to his core, will be the one that makes this happen with the Wall Street Journal. He’s gearing up to spend $20 million taking on the NYT in New York, so stay tuned).

If you want to “think global, act local”, you first need to figure out what the global means to the local. What’s the implication? That mission isn’t being carried out in Chicago or most other cities – by either the old or the new media.

Does Chicago Have Anything to Say to the World?

But even this type of journalism only helps make sense of what the world has to say to Chicago. There’s another question to answer: Does Chicago have anything to say back? This was once what the Tribune was to the city. It was Chicago’s megaphone to the world.

Is there anyone playing that role today? Sadly not. I’m told that Real Clear Politics is based there, not that you could tell from looking at it. RCP is a successful national site, but one that could be based anywhere, and for all anyone knows, probably is. It is not a recognizably Chicago site, nor does it speak from a Chicago perspective or point of view.

Now it makes sense that certain types of publications will be based in particular places. New York City is the media capital of the US, so obviously is going to have the most popular sites. And indeed there are many, including a number of well known sites that are recognizably NYC, have an NYC perspective on the world, and are often valued for that reason. I think here of Gawker, The Sartorialist, and Streetsblog as examples. Of course DC lends itself to political writing, LA to entertainment, etc. Still, there should be plenty of room for other players.

So where is Chicago in this? Nowhere that I can find. Bringing it back to Kamin, Chicago is a city known for its architecture. And it has several first class architectural writers, including not just Kamin, but Lee Bey, Lynn Becker, and Edward Lifson. Why hasn’t Chicago created even one of the world’s leading architecture blogs? These bloggers write almost exclusively about Chicago – again, the obsession with local – and don’t seem to have major national profiles. Contrast with Los Angeles (BLDGBLOG) or New York (A Daily Dose of Architecture or the Architect’s Newspaper). Where’s Chicago?

The lack of major “local-global” sites in Chicago, which is after all the third largest city in America and the #8 most important “global city” according to Foreign Policy Magazine, is puzzling.

What’s even stranger to me is that no one in Chicago ever seems to talk about this or even recognize it. It’s nothing but a chorus of “local” and “hyper-local”. It’s as if there’s a missing gene in its media DNA.

The plain fact is, outside its own four walls, Chicago media is irrelevant. In the great global conversation, Chicago stands mute. If it wants to get its story told, someone else will have to do the telling. Perhaps this explains why the city gets all giddy like a schoolgirl when Coco comes to town or the New Yorker prints a flattering profile of the mayor.

This is not to overly pick on Chicago in particular. I just know that city best. The same situation prevails in most places.

Doing It Right – Bil Browning and the Bilerico Project

The reason for this is not that the global age has led to the ever greater concentration of new media. There has been concentration, yes. But the competitive landscape is more open that ever, even for places you might never think of.

A great example is The Bilerico Project, co-founded by editor Bil Browning of Indianapolis. Bilerico is basically the Huffington Post of the LGBT world. It is one of the single most important LGBT sites in the entire United States. And yes, it is based in Indianapolis. What’s more, the people reading the site know Browning and know the site is from Indianapolis. While it has certainly become a much more national platform, there are still many Indiana-based contributors, and Browning maintains an Indiana vertical on his site. Bilerico matters in the LGBT world. So in a sense, Indianapolis has acquired the ability to move markets in this space. That’s pretty incredible.

How did Browning create such a site? For one thing, he was ambitious to do so. A local Indy nemesis of his attempted to criticize Browning by saying that “All he ever wanted was to be famous.” To which I say, and your point is? Famous as opposed to what, obscure? Who aspires to be that?

Of course Browning wanted to be famous – and he was ambitious to create a monster platform in his space. He toiled away at it long hours until he caught a break during the last election cycle, and then rode it for all it was worth. This made Browning something of a rarity – a full time, paid professional journalist in the new media space – he might prefer the term “professional gay” – with as close to a sustainable model as anyone is likely ever to get in this world.

This is a powerful example. Chicago probably has ten times as many gays as Indianapolis, but isn’t home to a single nationally important LGBT new media site I’m aware of. The difference is the ambition, talent, and hard work of Browning, co-founders Jerame Davis and Alex Blaze, and the many contributors who’ve made the Bilerico Project what is is today.

Lessons for Cities

What are the lessons for your city? I think there are two.

1. It’s a big world out there. There’s always a need for local news, and if that’s your passion, then go for it. But as local papers proceed down that route on the slow march to oblivion, there’s a bigger mission to fill, and that’s bringing a broader perspective. Particularly for urbanist sites, I’d put the challenge out to think hard, dig deep, and really try to think about how these national trends and policy discussions affect you and your city. I read a lot of urbanist blogs, many of them very good. The blogs in smaller cities are often bringing the good news of progressive urban policy to places who have a desperate need to hear it. But so often this is just “pass through”. The authors have a tendency to adopt the perspectives of the people generating the national discussion. They see the local environment through the global lens, rather than seeing the global environment through the local one. I literally had someone write to me a couple weeks ago, “We know we need to be like Portland, but we aren’t. So what do we do?” No! You don’t need to be like Portland. Don’t measure yourself against Portland as the standard. Instead, look at what Portland is doing and say, “Wow, there’s some nice stuff there. What might that mean to us? How might we actually apply this to our city? What unique things might we want to do different from Portland? Hey, and maybe, where are we ahead of Portland?” Don’t be a supplicant to the throne. Have a bit of amour-propre about your city while not being too proud to learn from elsewhere.

2. Find your own voice. It is a wide open world. There’s an ability for a small city to get its message out in a very powerful way on a global basis that never existed before. I come back to the fantastic sites Copenhagenize and Cycle Chic from Copenhagen that have had such an impact. It doesn’t matter who you are anymore. Get out there and tell your story and grab a seat at the table in that great global conversation. Let the world know what your city has to say.

In short, think Bilerico, not Chicago. There’s a big, wide-open new media world out there. Get in the game and claim your city’s piece of it.

The Future of the American Newspaper – My 6,500 word essay from last spring on this topic.

Topics: Globalization, Technology, Urban Culture
Cities: Chicago, Indianapolis

8 Responses to “A New New Media for Cities”

  1. Aaron is right that, at a time when global trends are affecting the Midwest more directly than ever, Midwestern newspapers have abandoned global coverage. But in this, as in so much else, journalism is in a state of flux, of experimentation, and the final result is not in sight. If there is a need for global news, it will be met. We just don’t know how.
    Because of this, it’s much too early to write off the Chicago News Cooperative. So far, its major product is indeed that twice-weekly Chicago spread in the NY Times. This is as local as Aaron says — deliberately. Its purpose is to include Chicago news in the Times, no more. Its unstated purpose is to show Chicagoans that they can get Chicago news without reading the Tribune, thereby increasing the Times’ circulation here. If you want global news, you have to go elsewhere in the Times, which is not onerous.
    The Cooperative’s next big project, and its main goal, is a web site, called Chicago Scoop, which will carry news in depth daily and hourly. At the start, at least, it will focus hard on Chicago. But as I pointed out in my blog posting on the Cooperative,
    it holds the possibility of much broader coverage — by linking to similar websites around the Midwest, to global news sites like GlobalPost, to international papers like the Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique, etc.
    Granted, this isn’t a newspaper. The days of printed papers may be over, except for an elite circulation. But website like Chicago Scoop may be the future, and they may be as comprehensive as the great old papers like the Tribune once were.
    But who knows? Stayed tuned.

  2. Eric M says:

    If Chicago’s perentage of foreign-born residents was brought up to the same ratio as New York City’s and Los Angeles’, only by increasing immigration, we’d have over 3.5 million people here. It would also probably increase the supply and the demand for global and global-local news.

  3. cdc guy says:

    There was an excellent example of the kind of “local effects” reporting Aaron described in (of all places) today’s Indianapolis Star:

  4. Lynn Stevens says:

    Good food for thought. As I read it though, there seems to be some back and forth between why media should take this route. Is it for the benefit of the city and its citizens? or for the benefit of the media corporation (to survive)? When they are after ad revenue.

    Goes back to city leadership as Janette Sadik-Kahn points in your last post, and/or motive.

  5. Andrew Huff says:

    It just occurred to me that we do have two fine examples of sites that raise Chicago’s profile in the world. They both happen to be music sites: Pitchfork and PopMatters.

  6. Tim says:

    Good idea. But how do you pay for it?

    The reason the great papers of old, like the Chicago Tribune, could provide a Chicago voice on national and global affairs was because they had people, like Richard Longworth, out across the country and the globe, finding and telling stories of the world through a Midwestern lens. The same was true, in their heyday, for papers in Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, etc.

    Now? Forget about it.

    Most Midwestern papers have one overworked Washington reporter and can afford – at best – just a handful of reporting trips a year. They focus on local because it’s where they have a competitive advantage.

    In “new media,” absent what remains of print advertising revenue, this is even more true. Maybe a blogger from time to time can write about another city he/she visits. But that’s different than a sustained look at how their city fits into the global economy, informed by on-the-ground looks at those other global places. How are you supposed to meaningfully compare your city’s urbanity to Portland if you haven’t been there in six years?

    I don’t know what the answer is. I hope we who care about Midwestern cities and journalism can figure it out.

    But in the meantime, that national and global conversation is going to get more and more concentrated in the hands of a few national outlets, and this part of the world will have a harder and harder time getting its story heard.

  7. Bil Browning says:

    Thanks so much for the kind words, Aaron. I hope we can find time to finally meet in person some day soon.

  8. I don’t know what’s in Rupert Murdoch’s core, and I don’t really want to find out, but I doubt it’s a newspaperman.

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