Thursday, March 29, 2007

The gaping hole in mainstream news coverage

In its February/March 2007 issue, the American Journalism Review called hyperlocal news “one of the hottest trends in journalism.”

That verdict left me ecstatic.

Hyperlocal news is what I would call my Nguoi Viet Daily News, Viet Bao or Viet Weekly. These are the names of the two dailies and one weekly that cover my home town: Little Saigon (better known as Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Westminster, Calif.)

Just like many other mainstream publications, they have a national and world news section, usually a Vietnamese translation of Associated Press or Reuter stories. But the local section is, well, really local.

The AJR article said “there is no official definition, but generally a hyperlocal news site (also known as local-local or microsite) is devoted to the stories and minutiae of a particular neighborhood, ZIP code or interest group within a certain geographic area.” I thought Wikipedia’s definition nailed it. Hyperlocal, it says, “refers to news coverage of community-level events usually overlooked by mainstream media outlets.”

And that is the draw for many of us community-minded Vietnamese Americans. Nguoi Viet, for example, will report on the 12-person meeting of local associations, when the Los Angeles Times, or even the Orange County Register, will not – for apparent and probably good reasons.

But even on larger events that do draw the attention of regional mainstream media outlets, like a big Vietnamese holiday or a huge protest, the mainstream media usually misses the point. One way or another, they tend to misrepresent something. For example, a report that paints the Vietnamese American community in one sweeping motion, when we are as diverse as any other group. Nothing infuriates me more. Or when the media again and again quotes the same guy, just because he is the only Vietnamese person they know of. Back when Van Tran was the first - and only - state assembly member of Vietnamese descent nationwide, he was quoted in almost every story that called for a Vietnamese perspective. Unfortunately, he only represented the Republican side.

Hyperlocal media “gets” the community. They understand the community. Where I live, they know who is who when mainstream would ask “who is he?”

Let’s admit it, the main enthusiasm for reading hyperlocal news stems from the fact that you read about people you actually know, personally. The coverage in the above-mentioned Vietnamese-language publications is in fact so grassroots that I often find the names of my very friends or neighbors in the headlines. That’s quite a thrill.

But there are also big problems with hyperlocal publications. Some are quite obvious, like the fact that the reporter and the subject on both sides of the story probably know each other really well. Take that thought a little further, and it pretty much leads to compromising objectivity or even corruption. We all have heard about the payola, commentator William Armstrong support for “No Child Left Behind,” etc. Well, the additional problem in hyperlocal news, with maybe couple dozen readers, is who will care enough to investigate the pay-to-play schemes if there are any? There are many more problems with local-local, I’m sure the more you think about it, the more it’ll drive you loco-loco.

In fact, the drawbacks can be so off-putting that they turned me from a lucrative job in IT to scary job prospects as a lowly-paid reporter. I felt that what I was getting from my hyperlocal media wasn’t good enough.

But that is not to say, hyperlocal is overhyped.

As I said earlier, I’m excited that AJR identified it as a hot trend. I only hope that with the mainstream picking up on this trend, the low standards at hyperlocal outlets can be improved while the mainstream will expand its appeal.


At Saturday, March 31, 2007, Blogger EJW said...

I am very interested in hyperlocal news too! This post brought up so many good points. My small hometown now has a hyperlocal newssource in the form of a website that's put together by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel--our main daily. I too will often read this to find out what my community is up to and also enjoy reading about my neighbors. However, the stories are not that well-written and often major issues are breezed over. Most of the stories are written by one or two reporters who also write for the Journal Sentinel. They don't really have that much of an interest or understanding of the community--they were probably forced by an editor to take part in the hyperlocal experiment. I think is sort of a half-hearted attempt by the paper to put something together since everyone is doing it.


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