“A Wiki Approach to News” – Mary Ann Giordano about “The Local”

The “New York Times” started two local neighbourhood-blogs for Brooklyn and New Jersey in March, a project that made Jeff Jarvis proclaim that “a wall just fell”, because it openly includes and actively promotes citizen journalism. Eight months after the launch, I interviewed editor Mary Ann Giordano for an article about hyperlocal blogs I wrote for German journal epd medien. The full article is not online and it is in German, but this is the full (English) interview, which I thought might also be of interest.

How has The Local been received?

The Local has been very well received, by all journalistic measures. Our readership is high, our repeat readership is very healthy, we draw many comments on our posts and we seem to have a loyal following of readers who see us — rightly — as a prime source for community news. But a better way to measure our success is to see how many posts are written, reported or tipped off by readers — community members who volunteer to write, report, shoot video, take photos or all of the above, because they are excited about The Local and they are interested in their communities. By our recent assessment, a solid 40 percent (and more) of our first 1,000 posts (we reached that milestone for both blogs around early October) were contributed wholly by members of the community. By my loose calculation, another 30 to 40 percent of the posts that our reporters or interns reported and wrote were inspired by readers’ tips or conversations in the comments. So we are well on our way to our goal to create community blogs, “covered by you and for you,” though there is much more that we can, and will, do.

What is the feedback from the people and the possible advertisers from the communities the two blogs cover?

The feedback from readers is largely good. We heard some criticism before we actually started the blogs, from people who were resentful that their communities were being “invaded” by the “mainstream media” institution of The New York Times. But that virtually disappeared. Readers sometimes don’t like what we write, or ask for some different things — more news seems to be the message we are getting in both Brooklyn and New Jersey — but they are largely complimentary of the sites. And, particularly in Brooklyn, they seem to turn to us immediately after the whiff of hard news in their neighborhoods (crime, a building collapse, the election).

However, we have garnered virtually no local advertising, mostly because we have not made much effort to get it. The business side of The New York Times has a wait-and-see attitude toward hyperlocal, which is probably very wise in this depressed economy when it takes effort just maintaining the advertising we already have. Some local businesses have reached out to us to place ads, and perhaps in the new year there will be more efforts to tap into this source of revenue. But for now, that has not been one of our measures of success.

Do people regularly become citizen journalists for you now? Or do they mostly point you towards important issues?

Both — see above. We have no shortage of content from the communities, much of it quite good. But we also get a lot of people pointing our staff reporters and interns towards stories and waiting to be delivered the news. Our response, more and more lately, is — “you tell US. What is going on outside your window? What do the police on the ground say? What happened at that community meeting?” And more and more they are coming back to us with quotes or photos or tips that find their way into posts.

What does your daily work look like? How does it differ from the work of classic print journalists? What were/are the reactions from the rest of the NYT?

The Local consists of two reporters: Tina Kelley, in Millburn, South Orange and Maplewood (where she lives), New Jersey; and Andy Newman in Fort Greene-Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. They start early in the morning, covering news, reporting stories, aggregating and curating content from other sites, supervising interns and recruiting local contributors who they then work with to produce posts. I supervise, direct, edit and read every single post before it is published, and also work directly with contributors and interns on their posts. The day is long — we are often up late, publishing breaking news or getting up late posts or using the relative quiet to plan and organize. And we are “on deadline” all the time. But we publish very sparingly on weekends, so do have those two days of rest. We communicate almost exclusively by e-mail or G-chat; except when we have meetings, we rarely talk. Since we each work independently, in different places, we miss out on the camaraderie and sociability of the newsroom, but such is the life of the lonely blogger! I think the greater newsroom has curiosity and interest in what we are doing, and we hope to include them more as the endeavor goes forward. The top management of the news organization is solidly behind our efforts. Eventually, the lessons we learn about collaborative journalism can be — and will be — incorporated into the greater newsroom, but first we will continue to test them in the laboratory we call “The Local.”

Do you think you will be making money eventually?

I sure hope so. A lot of people smarter than me think there will eventually be a pot of gold at the end of the hyperlocal rainbow — by some estimates $100 billion to be shared by local news sites/bloggers (by the way, we are best described as a news blog, because our main purpose is to impart real information and news, not opinion or ruminations). But for now our prime benefits are journalistic, as we explore this type of coverage and hone the techniques that go into it.

Is this an experiment, or is it the future of journalism? What do you think?

I think — and I only feel comfortable speaking for myself — that it is the future of journalism. Nothing will replace trained, professional journalists; although critics won’t admit it, I think that has been proven over and over again, with the best blog fodder still coming from news organizations that employ paid journalists and produce classic investigative and news reports. We believe the reason that our sites rise above many others is that we have experienced and talented journalists at the helm. But, overall, the old pull-up-the-drawbridge-and-issue-edicts approach is largely past. Instead, I believe that there will be a wiki approach to news, where we invite people into every aspect of the process while we supervise, guide and enhance the coverage. In the end, we think this will build a better report — and it already does: a published post with comments, corrections, updates and overall reader/community involvement can result in more precise journalism. That, in turn, builds reader trust. And that will, in the long run, save journalism, rather than kill it, I believe.