Monthly Archives: April 2012

What will come out of newspaper idea lab?

What will come out of newspaper idea lab?

When Heritage Newspapers announced plans to launch what amounts to a news incubator in a few months, I was leery that what came out of the experiment may be a flop of Patch-like proportions.

From their article on the subject:

Our goal is to teach the community to gather and report news on a variety of platforms, from creating video and podcasts to photo slideshows and sound slideshows to timelines, locator maps, info graphics, live tweeting, creating Storified compilations and databases, and become collaborators with Heritage.com, bringing the outside in and creating a transparent community newsroom.

A noble cause, but I think the journalism world can look to AOL’s Patch venture for why a lot of times hyper-local content doesn’t work. It’s not that important, not actually that local and most importantly not that interesting. I spent five minutes browsing some Michigan Patch posts and found the following stories I can’t imagine more than 10 people care about:

– a 1,168-word “Tribute To Twinkies

– a crime blotter that leads with a stolen bike helmet

– a blog simply entitled Gossip!

That said, I think the Heritage Newspapers project could address the problem of untrained community journalists. I’ve left “community” articles with grammatical hangovers and headaches from shaky cell phone video, so as a consumer I appreciate any attempts to clean it up.

But I think the issue is going to be what kind of talent pool the incubator has to work with. Heritage has established themselves in a college town, which may be good. Eastern Michigan University offers a journalism major, though it’s not accredited. That probably menas students are looking for opportunities to establish a good portfolio. Heritage also mentions that they want to recruit high school students, which sounds like a great idea.

But I have a different prediction for who will end up being interested: community activists.

I’ve sat through enough public comment sessions in state and local government to know that there are a lot of people that care deeply about issues but at the end of the day just aren’t informed on them. If Heritage is going to help them translate the half they do understand into a video or slideshow package and then distribute it as straight news, it’s a problem.

I think the challenge on this front will be aligning people’s interests and passions with journalistic and ethical standards. Because when it changes from “I want to cover this because these city council changes are bullshit and people ought to know about it” to “I’m covering this for Heritage Newspapers, let’s get both sides,” it’s work. Which is why newspapers have traditionally paid reporters. And hey, as a paid journalist I’m all for continuing that tradition.

But I’m also interested to see what (and who) comes out of this new venture in community journalism.

Note: I’m not clear on whether this content will have its own site or be featured on the websites of Heritage Newspapers. Also note:  I browse many of the state’s papers every day, and think Heritage does a great job with local coverage.