Open Thread: Remember Who’s Truly Local In “Local” News

It’s not all that often we at Sheepshead Bites stop our daily grind to toot our own horns. But sometimes the failings of other so-called “local” news outlets are so great, that we have to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.

Last week’s coverage of the Gravesend natural gas crisis, in which service was cut along Ocean Parkway leaving thousands of residents without hot water and other amenities, was one example of the service we at Sheepshead Bites provide that no other outlet does.

Let’s back up a second. Local news is currently all the rage in the journalism and advertising industries. With 72 percent of American adults professing to be “local news enthusiasts,” and the local advertising spending to exceed $136 billion this year, every player in town is hopping on the bandwagon. You hear it all the time; slogans like “As local as local gets” and “Your source for local news,” and hyperlocal this and geo-target that.

But what’s it all really mean? What is local?

I can tell you what it’s not: a big ol’ corporation based in some out-of-neighborhood, out-of-borough, out-of-city and even out-of-state office making the decisions on what matters to you, your life and your block. When that happens, the important, actionable information you need to get through your day gets jettisoned in favor of the trivial and sensational.

Often, to these corporate outlets, local stories means crime stories. They’ll be the first ones down here with camera crews when there has been a stabbing or shooting. They probably won’t tell you what the crime rates are in the area, and if that story really matters to you – which we define as having an effect on you or you having the ability to affect it. But they will work all day to find out how long Perp A’s rap sheet is, and all night to get that magic quote from Neighbor B about how Perp C was “such a nice, quiet boy before all this.”

Add to that “local” crime coverage a sprinkling of quirky, offbeat and trite stories, and you’ve got a pretty comprehensive roundup of local news for the average neighborhood in New York City.

But when a story breaks that affects you, as it did on Tuesday when water flooded National Grid gas lines and caused a five-day long outage, where was the local coverage then? Where were the stories explaining to residents what’s going on, how long it would go on for, and what they can do if they have questions?

Only Sheepshead Bites had that story.

And as great as a job I think the team here did – from reporting on the initial outage, to aggregating reports from readers about what they were hearing on the ground, to soliciting updates and explanations from National Grid representatives – it’s a damn shame we didn’t see any of these other “local” guys on the ground getting the story.

With 1,200 households denied service, that meant 3,000 to 5,000 people going through their work week without a hot shower, heat or a stove-cooked meal. Three thousand to 5,000! That’s the size of a small American town! And I bet you, had this happened in some rural town, the local online media there would’ve been on it in a heartbeat.

But here in New York City, it wasn’t until Sheepshead Bites began reaching out to larger media outlets several days into the crisis – at the same time, just about, that National Grid issued its first press release – that anyone else covered it. And then they just regurgitated the press release (with errors).

While major outlets like the Daily News or ABC may have had other major stories during the Gravesend crisis – I mean, Dick Clark did die last week, OMG! – there was one particular outlet whose failure shocked me above all: News Corporation’s local paper, Bay News.

Dedicated to our area – in theory – Bay News has still not written a word about the service outage, not that it matters anymore. They were too busy pumping out poorly-researched columns teetering on hate speech that has nothing to do with our neighborhoods. Since Bay News moved its headquarters from Sheepshead Bay Road all the way to other end of Brooklyn in One Metrotech Center, they’ve not only symbolically abandoned our neighborhood, but literally as well.

And, here’s the real kicker: National Grid’s communication team is also located in One Metrotech, which means all a Bay News reporter would’ve had to do is ride the elevator to get the full story on the Ocean Parkway fiasco.

Why do I care what the so-called “local” news does? Two reasons. First, they’re giving local a bad name. And I’ve written before about why I think local news is too important to be ignored.

Second, I care because at the same time that they’re abandoning our communities, they’re blaming independent startups like Sheepshead Bites for siphoning away readers and advertising dollars from traditional media, making local news “unsustainable;” as if merely the presence of an alternative is what’s killing them.

No. Sorry, legacy local news outlets. It’s much simpler than that.

In coverage, in community and in commerce – you dropped the ball. And you’re never getting it back again.