One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced on this blog is trying to get interesting, constructive discussions going about local news.
Back when I started this platform, I used to try really hard on that front, but it was so frustrating that I confess I’ve slacked off in recent years.
But this used to be my life’s mission, you see. In a world in which the great national newspapers and wire services had national and international news covered more than adequately, our role was obviously to keep democracy working by informing readers about local matters. This is why, when I was editorial page editor, our editorials and columns were focused about 80-90 percent on state and local matters.
And back when newspapers had some resources, the newsroom did a pretty fair job of covering the proverbial local waterfront. That was a challenge, though, particularly here in South Carolina. As a result of a bunch of complicating factors — weak local governments, barriers to municipal annexation, the Legislature’s dominance of government on all levels, a web of 500 or so local “governments” providing services that should be provided by cities and counties, more than twice as many school districts as there were counties — it was hard to present ONE front page, one newspaper, that was completely relevant to most of the circulation area.
A good illustration of this is what I have frequently mentioned as my greatest frustration on the editorial page. You know how I value candidate endorsements. They are a great way of shedding light on the strengths and weaknesses of candidates, taking voters far beyond the embarrassing “name recognition” level and the shameful party-identification level. A properly written endorsement lays a template for really thinking about your vote. Whether you agree with the endorsement or not, by reading and thinking about it, you give your vote more thought than far too many voters ever do.
This was particularly true on the local level, where the local newspaper was often your only source of any kind of information about the candidates. It was even more true with school boards. I was convinced that school board endorsements would have helped voters have at least some basis for a decision in the booth, and could be the most important ones we did. But I could never figure out how to get it done. With seven school districts just here in Richland and Lexington counties, that would have meant as many interviews as for governor, statewide offices, state representatives and senators, city and county councils, sheriff and other county officials combined. And it was a huge challenge to get through those, even when I had a full staff. Four or five interviews a day for weeks preceding elections, on top of our regular work producing the daily pages.
Back to the news area… in the ’80s, metro newspapers across the country jumped on a bandwagon that was widely touted as the future of journalism — hyper-localism. That took the form of the Neighbors sections you may remember. Separate staffs of reporters and editors produced special weekly sections aimed at this or that portion of the metropolitan area.
But those all went away some time ago, their staffs disbanding well before almost all the regular core newsroom jobs vanished.
Which brings us to what I wanted to write about. The above was all just to set it up.
I had an interesting experience several days ago…
While I was making coffee, my wife read me essentially the ledes of four local news stories that gave us a minute or two each of interesting discussion, in some cases because they were about people we knew, or things someone in our family was involved with. There was:
- A doctor who once practiced with my former GP was sentenced to five years in federal prison for drug dealing; we both remembered the guy, and speculated about what in the world happened to him.
- There was a bomb threat at my granddaughters’ former school. That’s not in my neighborhood, of course, which means the old Neighbors-section approach wouldn’t have brought it to me.
- A pet snake bit an inmate at the Lexington County jail. (We feel a tie to the residents of local jails with my daughter representing them as a public defender, and spending a lot of time there with her clients.)
- And getting back to snakes, it’s “baby copperhead season.” As y’all know, we have a particular interest in copperheads on this blog. And they definitely proliferate in my neighborhood.
The few minutes of kicking these stories around there in the kitchen were the most interesting that I’ve spent with local news in some time. It was engaging in a way that the front page — of The State, or The Washington Post, or what have you — almost never is. (I think one of these stories was on the front, the others scattered inside. And not in the print edition, but one of the paper’s supplementary e-paper products.)
It would be great if there was a way to reliably duplicate this experience, and maybe help pull people at least temporarily away from yelling at each other about Trump and Biden, and tie them closer to their communities.
And no, I don’t think my wife has time to go out and read a personalized report to each of you. I suppose I could ask her. No, I’m no dummy — you ask her…
Mind you, I frequently decry the whole personalization of news thing. I think one of the biggest causes of the fragmentation and bitter division in our society today is the fact that digitized media enable people to craft their own “news reports” to tell them only things that they want to hear. We need to all be seeing the same, holistic picture of the world, so that at least we can agree on the facts before we starting arguing our opinions.
But for the reasons I’ve mentioned above, covering the hyper-local stuff in a way that’s relevant to people offers a challenge that’s different from the national, state and even citywide news and issues.
But how do we do this? How do we provide targeted local news briefings as useful and interesting as the ones my NPR One and NYT Audio apps give me on the national and international levels?
The personalization of this hypothetical device would require readers to submit to impossibly long and intrusive questionnaires about every detail of the listeners life and interests, making subjective and intuitive leaps that I’m pretty sure is beyond the current capabilities of AI. That’s asking a great deal more from readers, or listeners, than in the old days when they simply had to cough up a dime.
And when I say “impossibly,” I’m saying, how do you get down to a level that anticipates the kinds of connections I felt to these stories? Asking “What’s your favorite hobby?” ain’t gonna cut it.
I’d be glad to take a crack at drafting the questions if anyone wants to write the coding for this app that will revolutionize the local business (and make us both rich). But I’m telling you, it will take some time…