The laziness of "localizing" news stories

As local and metro newspapers have lost relevance (and staff) outside of their immediate geographic areas, they’ve tried to substitute actually being there with “localizing.”

Sometimes, it has relevance, such as when there’s an indigenous population in the area (although the paper should be covering them regularly if they want them as readers, right?), or if a local person truly has some connection. One generic example from my days at a small, upstate New York daily was the local emergency-response officials who were part of state/national response teams. Those individuals would sometimes be called to disaster zones, thereby becoming part of the story.

But, most of the time, it’s a well-meaning but lazy way of filling space and justifying the inclusion of reams of old, unoriginal wire copy. And, as staffs become smaller, news travels quicker and formerly invisible regions of the world become household names, it becomes tragically comical.

Two examples — the headlines will tell it all:

“Unrest in Cairo affects local woman’s vacation”

“Japan earthquake will have no impact on Ohio”

The worst part about the stories is how each marginalizes, almost mocks the innocent subjects within. In the former, two retired teachers were merely recounting their vacation — as they were asked to. They did have some inconveniences, but certainly never meant to say, as the headline implies, that they were the focal point of the unrest. In the latter, an earthquake expert was merely giving data, not saying Ohioans should worry first about Ohio.

So, what are the alternatives for local news outlets wishing to cover the big news of the day?
A warning: Doing so involves work, imagination and, to a degree, staffing.
1. Cover local news. Be the best you can be in your own neighborhood, and maybe you’ll survive long enough to worry about the rest.
2. Rely on your wire services until you can add local perspective. Most outlets still pay for AP; many other pay for the New York Times’ service or other wires. Use them in print; use AP’s multimedia offerings on your website. You’re not ignoring the story but not pretending you can do more or break news. Find someone — a guest columnist, a true expert or do some staff research — and present analysis later on. If there’s a local connection in the facts, great. If not, at least make a local perspective.
2a. If you want to have a bigger online offering, curate. Not to go too Jeff Jarvis or Mark Potts on you, but once people have the news (or even are aware of it), simply saying, “here’s news!” isn’t enough. It’s about selecting and packaging that news to offer curiosities, tailored angles on the news, and a greater depth and breadth than a person could/want to find on his or her own.
2b. If you curate, think outside the box. The Big Picture on (The Boston Globe) was started by a non-journalist trying to tell a story. The blog has been an essential for years, and he’s at The Atlantic now. It’s simple, uses wire photos, yet has an identity. Slate has for years written on a second-day basis, answering — strongly — the questions people have after they say, “Holy shit!”, with answers that aren’t always the expected. In other words, carve out a corner of the Web that delivers news and guarantees readers that it’ll be worth the visit.

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