GANAHL ON MEDIA: Hype In Hyper Local?

Even as the legacy media business model implodes and dozens of media outlets and thousands of journalists disappear, many pin some of their hopes for media’s future on hyper local news sites. But, are they ready to do media’s heavy lifting?

Hyper local sites deliver original and aggregated content about specific geographical areas. They rely on multiple content sources ranging from government databases to professional and citizen journalists. Many, such as The Voice of San Diego, The New Haven Independent, and the MinnPost are rightfully recognized for their innovations.

However, the revenue streams of some remain undeveloped forcing them to rely on grants from foundations such as the Knight Foundation for much of their revenue. The Knight Foundation has funded over 50 projects related to community information projects.

A recent study of how news happens in a major city raises serious questions about the capacities of both hyper local sites and legacy media.

The study titled How News Happens: A Study of the News Ecosystem of One American City is by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, and it analyzes all the news reported by 53 news outlets in Baltimore, Maryland during one week in July 2009. The research is based on a “minute-by-minute” analysis of “every piece of content” produced by the 53 news outlets during 3 days of the studied week.

Frankly, its conclusion: “that what the public learns is still overwhelmingly gathered, synthesized, and framed by traditional media-particularly now much-diminished local newspapers,” seems obvious Just think about your own news habits: how often do you rely on hyper local websites for information?

Who produced content?
Courtesy of Pew Research Center: How News Happens

What is surprising is what the study says about the content redundancy built into news reporting. Nearly 83% of the 715 different stories produced during the studied week contained no new information and was basically repetitive. Traditional media, mostly newspapers, generated 95% of the 121 stories with original content. New media’s productions are only 4%, or less than 6 stories.

Even more surprising is media’s reliance on official sources for story ideas. The study documents that government triggered nearly 3 out of 5 stories, and that the press initiated only 14% of the stories. Pew reports, “press releases appeared verbatim…though often not cited as such.” It also reports “instances of plagiarism-reposting stories without attribution.”

But most surprising is how “much-diminished’ the legacy media truly are. For example, the number of stories produced in 2009 by the Baltimore Sun has plummeted to 23,668 stories, a decrease of 73% since 1991 when more than 86,000 news stories were produced. Even more telling is the fact that the Sun supported two competing newsrooms in 1991 when it published both a morning and evening paper.

Quite a news ecosystem, wouldn’t you say? Is Pew documenting the extinction of a news ecosystem? Are legacy media on their deathbed? Do hyper local news sites lay stillborn on the delivery table?

Who triggered the news?
Courtesy of Pew Research Center: How News Happens

Media pundit and educator Jeff Jarvis shouts not so fast: “We must (remember) we are at the dawn; the very beginning of the new news ecosystem.” He trashes The New York Times’ story, and claims the Pew study merely allows legacy media to validate their own self-reported importance while ignoring the uniqueness of hyper locals’ contributions. Jarvis insists hyper locals are redefining the very nature of news while pushing to new limits journalism’s entrepreneurial spirit.

Really? This is a new dawn? Maybe it’s just a false dawn, or the beginning of an excruciatingly protracted dusk.

Seriously. Not only are news producers in the current news ecosystem ‘greatly diminished,’ so are the consumers they attract and the revenues they generate. In an earlier column I wrote, “declines in newspaper circulation mirror (the industry’s) revenue declines.” Today’s newspaper circulation of 48.5 million equals 1945’s newspaper circulation of 48 million, and is a 23% decrease from the 1984 peak of 63.3 million. The New York Times reports similar losses in network TV news audiences that have decreased from 50 million in 1980 to 22 million in 2009.

This much is clear though: there are transformational changes in the news ecosystem and hyper local sites are struggling for position. The Pew study is just one data point in the national news ecosystem. It should be replicated across the country especially in those cities where hyper locals are more established.

Dr. Richard Ganahl is a professor in mass communications at Bloomsburg University, PA. His column GANAHL ON MEDIA is an occasional column about media issues. Ganahl is a former media manager, publisher, entrepreneur and consultant. He is co-editor with Dr. Louisa Ha of the award-winning Webcasting Worldwide (2007), and the founding faculty advisor of BU Now, a multi-media, student-managed media blog site.

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