Friday, May 1, 2009

The Local: Is Community News the Way to Go?

By Kaja Stamnes

They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. But in a time of decreasing newspaper loyalty and readership, the bubbling blogosphere and 24-hour cable “news,” traditional newspaper formats are going to have to muster up the strength to roll over or else risk being put down.

The New York Times, for instance, has invested a great deal in their website in order to keep up with the current times. One particularly interesting experimental way in which The Times is trying out new ideas is through The Local, a more localized blog-like creature begun in two separate test locations; Maplewood, NJ and Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Will this be the news format of the future? Can a local, anecdotal news blog with participants throughout its community interest the average Joe? Only time will tell.

The Maplewood Blog is spearheaded by Tina Kelley, a reporter for The New York Times. Her reasons for choosing this particular town are exceedingly simple. “The Times wanted me to launch this experiment in New Jersey, and I live in Maplewood. And I knew the conversation here would be rich, fun and meaningful, because intriguing people live here, and for good reasons,” she writes on the website. The blog actually incorporates the two neighboring towns as well—South Orange and Millburn, creating a trifold community on the Internet.

The goal of The Local is to be as citizen-friendly as possible. Tina writes, “The foundation of The Local will be local news, both breaking and simmering... I have my whole work day, plus a press card, to devote to getting answers for you.” The emphasis on “both breaking and simmering” can be seen right away as one visits the website. Often featuring pictures from around the community and soft news stories or reflections, The Local definitely has the laid back, tolerant vibe that emanates from the towns it grew out of. These suburbs, located about 40 minutes away from New York Penn Station on the Midtown Direct Train line, draw young couples from the city to settle, and keep them there with the family-friendly, open-minded attitude and the possibility of escape to the Big Apple whenever the urge is pressing.

The Local features numerous bloggers from the community, writing on an equally numerous array of topics. The various contributors bring their own experience, whether in journalism or from some specific community point of view. Hilding Lindquist, 70, is a longtime writer and recent playwright who calls his blog “The Old Man” and writes about end-of-life issues. As his bio catchily sums it up, “Going into his 70’s on hemodialysis and being evaluated for the kidney transplant list is not what Hilding Lindquist planned, but neither is blogging for The Local.” Other bloggers include Risa Olinsky, a personal trainer and wellness coach who blogs about staying active and healthy while living in Maplewood.

Aside from the highly diverse set of contributors, The Local also encourages submissions from the average Joe or Joanna. Artwork, articles and comments or suggestions are encouraged. There is even a small section called “The Fridge” where artwork from local schools is displayed. This morning there is a Castle drawn in perspective by a fifth grader at Maplewood's Tuscan Elementary School. The site also impresses with its inclusion of a “” box, encouraging people to inform each other of things that need fixing around town. However, it seems the same few problems have been lingering there, neglected in the box (perhaps it really is unused).

The challenge for The Local may be the need to find itself a niche. While it has the backing of The New York Times, a sleek, easy to navigate design and the best intentions, some people still don't get it, or think it has already been done. The first comment, written under the name Jay, reads “I don’t understand what this is supposed to be. I don’t see any solid mechanism to include content related to news items of pressing interest. Are you tied in with The Times and your wire service to dump stories related to our towns in here as blog entries?” Others felt it was The New York Times' attempt to rip off, a Jersey-based news blog with similar goals. But others felt more optimistic: For example, John X. Kim of Maplewood wrote, “There are tremendous opportunities for stories here in Maplewood/Millburn/South Orange…stories of local significance but also of national resonance. The unique demographics of Maplewood/SO make the towns a bellweather for larger cultural currents on politics, education, race relations, to name a few.” He continued by professing a hope that The Local would take on some of these more concrete issues and stay away from fluff.

The future of The Local is yet to be determined. The posts keep going up, and under the leadership of Tina Kelley, it will continue to roll out the stories. Whether it will find its one draw, the spark that draws the loyal reader with his cup of morning Joe, will be seen as time goes on and adjustments are made. But at the very least this new project, birthed out of the desire to expand and adapt journalism to the future, has carved out its own little plot in cyberspace. And while that may not be enough in the long run, the fact of contributing and working under the umbrella of The New York Times is enough to satisfy and motivate the people who make it happen.

Kaja Stamnes is a junior double-majoring in Political Science and Journalism with a minor in Italian Studies. In her free time she enjoys the beach, camping and good music in the sunshine.

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