Open Thread Mondays: A Manifesto For Hyperlocal

“So is Sheepshead Bites your full-time job? Is it your vocation?”

That’s a question I get asked a lot. It surprises some people that I dedicate more than full-time hours to Sheepshead Bites, trying to build not just a news outlet, but a sustainable business model for the next generation of journalism. But on the day I was asked this particular question in this particular way, it came with this particular follow-up:

“Is that all you aspire to do with your life?”

Yikes. I’m about to turn 27. Us quarter-lifers, as the media has termed us, don’t like to wrestle with such questions. But there it was, drooping in front of me like a gnarled apple rotting on the limb. And it came from a rather prominent figure in the community who, apparently, didn’t “get it.”

There’s no easy answer of course. There’s a lot I aspire to do. I hope to write a book one day. I’ll eventually be married – this beaut of a face can’t stay on the market forever. Then there are all the places I plan to travel. Oh, and let’s not forget the billion dollars I’m going to make; can’t forget that.

But you know what? There ain’t a bit of shame in aspiring to own and run the premiere online destination for a community of more than 160,000 people. There’s no fault in wanting to reconnect neighbors with neighborhoods, and communities with their local government. My role is to create a place for civic discourse, and, of course, make a living out of it.

And by doing that I get to be the master of my own domain, and doing something I believe is crucial to democracy.

I believe local journalism, local government and local economies are the linchpins of a vibrant, healthy nation. For decades, as conglomerates swallowed up independent news outlets across the nation (our own local paper, Bay News, is owned by News Corp. – the same company that owns Fox News and the New York Post, for example), local coverage was watered down because community reporting is expensive, and stockholders want dividends. And because corporations can view employees as easily replaceable cogs, one reporter who lives in the community and has covered it for decades is just as valuable as one straight out of journalism school three states over.

But community reporting requires more than cogs. It requires more than an academic familiarity of those it covers. What meaningful local reporting requires is a personal investment. If the reporter doesn’t stand to benefit from a healthy community, his coverage will serve to dramatize and exacerbate problems rather than solve them.

When Sheepshead Bites ventures to cover the community, we do it because we’re neighbors. Our writers live here. Our business is based here. And we endeavor to support and uplift our neighbors for all of our benefit.

Our reporting sees results. When we complain about garbage, it gets cleaned up. When we question politicians, they endeavor to meet our concerns. When we cry to the city that Sheepshead deserves more – well, we’re still waiting to see about that one. This alone makes the site a worthwhile exercise, because, to me, the significance of one’s aspirations is only measurable by how much it helps others. Not to get preachy, but a preacher’s quote is especially applicable here: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” (That’d be Martin Luther King, Jr., by the way.)

And it’s not just bettering Sheepshead Bay that I’m concerned about. Sheepshead Bites is part of a nationwide movement of independent online news publishers striving to build sustainable, locally-owned journalism operations at the community level. We’re out to prove a point: local reporting is valuable and profitable. The stakes are high – community papers from coast-to-coast are shuttering and large media companies are reducing their investment in local, overburdened by corporate overhead and stockholder’s expectations.

That paints a nightmarish picture for the future of communities and for journalists.

By abandoning communities, media conglomerates are ripping out the foundation of American democracy and civic participation. Without their local news outlets, neighborhoods will have no watchdogs. They will have no one sounding the alarm on issues as small as a lingering pothole or as large as political corruption. There will be no one to root for neighbors and local businesses. There will be no one explaining the difference between a civic group and a community board, or explaining how new legislation could affect you. Quite simply, there will be no one fighting for you.

Without local participation, how can citizens ever expect to get results from the larger political processes?

But I’m also a journalist deeply concerned about the state of journalism. By abandoning communities, media conglomerates are ripping out the foundation of journalism. Local reporting is where young reporters earn their chops, and it’s where they learn to respect sources (because your sources know where you live). It’s where larger news outlets pluck their stories from and find the pulse of the city. And, when all is said and done, local media is always relevant to readers, and has served for generations as citizens’ introduction to larger media. It’s where they learn media literacy, and discover that the news – whether it’s local, national or global – is and always has been interactive; readers are meant to engage with editors and reporters, not merely consume. Without that literacy – which is sadly uncommon these days – mainstream media seems both monolithic and beyond comprehension.

Without local media, how can citizens ever expect to navigate and influence the larger media landscape?

Our national movement of independent online news publishers is out to rebuild those foundations, create sustainable business models, and ensure our neighbors have a voice. It’s a matter of resuscitating the most basic elements of journalism – that have, unfortunately, given way to punditry, conjecture and insincerity – and a quest to reinvigorate civic life.

So, the point is, if this is all I aspire to, that’s a heckuva lot to do. And I’ve got to get back to work…


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