Final Assignment: Local News – “The Valley”

Posted: April 19, 2011 by trevorjnichols in Uncategorized

The Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia is a unique news environment. It’s made up of several small, and a few medium-sized towns, stretched out along one long road. There’s no question that each town is its own unique place, with distinct people, culture and atmosphere.

For example: The town of Wolfville is the beating bohemian heart of the Valley. It is home to Acadia university, a thriving Saturday farmer’s market and for the most part a population of liberal-minded, forward-thinking young people. Just half an hour’s drive away sits the quaint town of Berwick. Berwick is close to the Michelin tire plant – the main source of jobs in the valley outside of agriculture industry – and is populated mostly by older people who tend to be on the conservative side.

But even though the towns are all unique, “the Valley” is like one big community. It is a lot like a big city with all of its different neighbourhoods, except most of the powerful people drive tractors instead of BMWs.

There is also a huge mix of people in all of these communities. There are a lot of families who have lived for several generations in the same town, all working for the same construction company. It is these people whom give the Valley it’s “nice, but kind of hickish” reputation. But because of its natural beauty, and proximity to Halifax, there are also a lot of wealthy professionals who move here later in life.

Any news organization that wants to be an integral part of the community, needs to be able to appeal to everyone from immigrated yuppies to obtuse English majors to cranky old farmers, and then do that in about a dozen distinct communities. A significant part of the population also have few computer skills, so any online news project faces significant boundaries.

Driving traffic

Because of the relative lack of interest in computers, along with the very diverse population of the Valley, an online news organization will need to aggressively try to bring people to its website. It’s not enough to just put the site out into the world and hope people find it, because given the choice, a lot of people in the Valley will stick to the media they are familiar with. That is why my media organization would not just limit ourselves to publishing out content on our website.

The greatest thing about the internet is that it incorporates all three of the “traditional” news media, even if they don’t operate exactly the same way. The most common is print, which comes in the form of articles, or blog posts. Radio is also there, in the form of sound clips, or podcasts. Finally TV-like news is found in video clips.

My organization would utilize all three of these media, which in itself is not unique. What would be, however, is the production value. We would create some of our content so that it would work both on an internet web site, as well as the traditional medium it stems from.

For example: a story about a new program partnering low-income workers with farmers would get a story on the website, and in internet fashion perhaps some interview clips, and pictures. But, we would also produce a TV-style news story that could be played on local television. We could also produce a radio documentary that could be played on the CBC, or perhaps the local college radio station.

My goal would be to partner with local news organizations, and have our content published through them, as well as on our website. This is the model that Propublica has used, and it has had great success. The news organizations are getting top quality journalism that can increase their ad revenue, and we are getting another outlet to bring our stories to the people, as well as hopefully drive traffic to our website.

On The Net

As mentioned before, the internet is do great because it offers almost unlimited possibilities. We can incorporate audio, video, print, photographs and a variety of other tools to tell the fullest possible story: it just have to be words on a page anymore.

But the other aspect of the internet that we would capitalize on would be the connectivity. In local papers in the Valley, hundreds of letters to the editor are sent every week. There is a strong sense of community there, so people feel really close to the news – chances are they know, or are even related to, the people we report on.

Basically, in the Valley they love gossip. Gossip is probably the one single thing that transcends all of the class, social and community divides. I wouldn’t want my organization to be reporting on all the gossip, but I think we could really foster a sense of community if we gave people an outlet to do so – and the best part is that we could keep it within reason through moderation.

We would set up a forum, where we would encourage everyone who visits the site to give their opinions on the news. We would pose questions that invite people to give their opinions, and those that are articulate and reasonable would be featured front and centre on the main page of the site. This makes the news not just about what we say, but about what the people who read it are saying.

This would also help remedy the problem of out-of-control comment sections. The old “leave a comment below” format for engaging users is outdated. It’s a lazy way to try to build community. This forum would be comprehensive – and rather than an afterthought, it would be a central focus of the website.

In an interview on Ted.com Jacek Utko stresses the importance of communicating with the readers. This forum would be that place. Not only that it would hopefully foster a sense of community, it would be a place where the readers would be an integral part of the news. A news site recently launched in Canada where professional reporters and editors write and peruse stories that come entirely from user-submitted ideas. We would make this an integral part of our coverage, committing to covering a certain number of stories entirely from the readers every week.

A big problem in newsrooms is that sometimes journalists get so caught up in their own world they forget they are doing a pubic service. The internet offers us all kinds of opportunity to stay grounded and connected to the people we are trying to help, and forcing ourselves to listen to them is a great way to keep our journalism relevant.

Oh, The Stories We Will Tell

Michael Oreskus, in a recent interview with PBS said that great journalism is not about technology, or flashy graphics, but getting it right. He argues that the core values of journalism are what makes it valuable, and that any journalism that sticks to those values will be both relevant, and well received. My site will strive to maintain those “core values,” by favouring quality over quantity.

Common consensus seems to be that people want news as fast as possible on the internet: they don’t care for the intricate details, they just want to know what is happening at this instant. Certainly there is some of that online, but I believe that there is much more of an appetite for storytelling, and long-form journalism than people believe.

I think this is especially true of somewhere like the Valley, where there is a strong sense of connectivity and community, and people are less likely to live in a “wired” world. That is why we will focus a lot more heavily on giving people narratives that help further develop their understanding of their community.

In addition to that, even somewhere like the Valley there is a wealth of information floating around. So in order to get people to pay attention to what you are publishing you need to occupy a niche. Our niche will be the more colourful, interesting, and personal stories of the community. Of course the site will incorporate some of the by-the-second news updates, but we will focus largely on this longer form of storytelling.

I hope to make the stories, and really the whole project, reflect the community atmosphere of the place they are about. Not only are these kinds of stories more interesting to read, but they still accomplish what news is supposed to: essentially informing the community of what is happening around them.

We can accomplish this not only through the work we publish ourselves, but also by tapping into the talent and opinions of the people within the community.

Often journalists look upon bloggers and citizen journalists with a kind of bemused skepticism, and while most citizen journalists might not be able to do exactly what a trained journalist can, their ideas, opinions and outlook on the community is incredibly valuable. We would draw from them as much as possible, inviting our readers to submit video clips, sound bites, pictures or anything else they think is important.

About The Benjamins

In a recent panel discussion on long-form journalism, Stephen Engelberg of Propublica said that he didn’t believe that what his organization was doing would be possible if they were seeking a profit. I agree with him, in the sense that making money often gets in the way of telling the best possible story.

Local newspapers in the Valley occasionally publish what their editors refer to as “advertorials.” These are essentially articles written at the request of a local group or organization, with the understanding that that group will buy ad space in return.

To avoid morally skewed things like this happening, I believe my organization would have to operate on a not-for-protif basis. We could still take in revenue from ad sales, but we wouldn’t operate as a corporation seeking profit. As is the case with Propublica, we would operate on grants from private donors who have an interest in seeing a healthy dialogue in their community, and that quality journalism does not die.

We would also ask our readers for donations as well, we could do pledge drives like those done by PBS and This American Life. It would be very difficult to foster the sense of community and involvement that we hope to if we asked our readers to pay a subscription fee. However, if we ask them to donate money as our partners, rather than our customers, I feel we would have a lot of success, especially if we are providing not only great stories, but a place for people to come together and talk about community issues.

Success

Just like any news organization should strive to do, we will measure our success by asking if we are telling the stories that people are reading. Are we telling stories that no one else is? Are our stories starting discussion within the community? Are they catalysing positive change within the community? Are we fostering a sense of community that bridges social, geographical and economic divides? Are we listening to the community, and exploring issues that they want to know about? Are we accessible to everyone?

If we are able to accomplish even a few of these things, we can consider our organization successful.

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Comments
  1. sharonfawcett says:

    Trevor, this is well-written. I love your last section, “Success.” You expressed much better than I did what the true measure of a successful community platform is. Unfortunately, I think many of the things you noted aren’t being achieved by a number of news organisations today.

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