Asking whether local is better in journalism is the wrong question

June’s Carnival of Journalism, a monthly collection of thoughts from the journalism blogosphere, focused on the issue of local.

The question was whether journalism is better the more local it is. The range of responses shows this is a rich area for debate.

I sat out the carnival as I was on honeymoon in Thailand. But one of the entries from Paul Bradshaw, arguing that online all journalism is potentially local, got me thinking whether we are asking the wrong question.

The concept of local news is based on the news value of geographical proximity – the notion that events close to us are more relevant than those in far away lands.

The problem with this approach is that it is based on an out-dated model of news, where there was a scarcity of news and information and the sources for this were limited by geography.

In other words, news was hard to come by and the primary source for this was the local daily paper.

The explosion of electronic media, from radio to TV to the Internet, has undermined this model. We now live in a world where there is an abundance of news from an abundance of sources.

Maybe rather than asking whether journalism should be local, we should ask ourselves what does local mean in the 21st century. Geographical proximity is still a factor in news, as people are interested in what their neighbours are up to.

But perhaps we should pay more attention to the notion of cultural proximity, so stories concerned with people who speak the same language, look the same, and share the preoccupations as the audience receive more coverage than those concerned with people who speak different languages, look different and have different preoccupations.

The issue then becomes how do we decide on what is cultural proximity? Take Vancouver as an example. This is a Canadian city, with several significant and vibrant ethnic communities.

The result is a multifaceted local population, where diversity rather than homogeneity is the norm.

In this case, local takes on a meaning beyond geography, encapsulating issues of demographics, culture and values. Take the example of a story by Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra, one of my students at the UBC School of Journalism.

She produced a video piece on how attitudes to the elderly are changing among Canada’s Asian community.

This story is based in Vancouver but it has a relevance beyond the city. It resonates on a national and global level, as well as across demographics.

You don’t have to live in Vancouver, or in Canada, to be interested in the piece, so to call this “local news” is to deny its wider appeal.

The issue then is less whether local is better, but rather how do we redefine local to remain relevant in a digital news environment.

No Comments

  • June 30, 2008

    Andy

    The motivation for asking the question was that it seemed that some of the best journalism was done by what we would consider local outfits.

    Like your Vancouver story they seem to get the stories that have an interest to many over and above the geographical direction. It wasn’t necessarily a value judgment, more a reflection on the kind of content that is appearing from local outlets as apposed to the generic national content.

    I agree that proximity is perhaps a better thing to aim for than geography. But part of me thinks what’s wrong with geography?

    What is wrong with having local news in terms of geography. We seem obsessed with geotagging the stuff at the moment so why are we so ashamed of applying a little geography?

    I don’t see newsapers trying to re-title themselves the ‘of interest to a slightly older, a bit right of center, and a bit wary of computers’ evening news (5 mile radius edition) and I hope we won’t see newspaper websites re branded as generic “the online version of things that might interest you culled from the web to entertain you if you are looking for a car in preston.com”

    Local is being re-defined and rightly so, to be a broader reach of interest but that can be ‘as well as’ the geographical element. The amounts will change but the balance will need to be there.

    Still, if I harp on about geography and local for too long people will thing I’m turning in to a ludditte :)

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  • June 30, 2008

    Bryan Murley

    I share your concerns about the geographical puzzle, but also wonder if rising prices and a period of economic uncertainty will drive people back to thinking on a more geographically local level in due time?

    congrats, btw

  • June 30, 2008

    Alfred Hermida

    Thanks for the congrats Bryan. As for the geographical puzzle, I also wonder how having a more transient and migratory population impacts on local journalism. If people are moving to different parts over the course of a lifetime, what does local mean to them?

  • July 1, 2008

    Jim in Austin, TX

    There may be a need for a new method of measurement, because the Internet seems to be dictating a different meaning for the term “local”. Local in the digital age is attached to ethos rather than place. Like-minded listeners/viewers/readers/users/consumers of news are carving out their own niches, cultures, and virtual spaces through the Internet. They now have agency as a part of what is coming to be known as the “active audience”.

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