Not long ago, the NY Times would toss local news leads in the trash; its staff was so stealthy in lifting stories from the city’s community weeklies that they’d rarely deign to give them credit; free drinks, dinners and comaraderie determined the assignment of soft neighborhood features, and … well, that was when the Times was The Times.
Today, the shoe’s on the other foot. Community media (now mostly bloggers) are lifting copy from the Times (although unlike old Times editors who stole from community weeklies with impunity, the bloggers virtually always credit their source); the Times itself is groveling – begging actually — for help. Some applaud the Times for recognizing the landscape’s seismic shift and adjusting its structure accordingly; others find it sad to watch a king brought low, hearkening — get ready for a stretch — to Isaiah 5:15: “The mighty shall be humbled, and the eyes of the lofty shall be abased.”
Instead of hiring a community reporting team, the Times adopted the subminimum labor practices long common among both hand-to-mouth weeklies and the toniest magazines — it’s looking to interns and wannabe journalists (including graduate students from the City University of New York) to produce its two The Local blogs. These NY Times blogs serve upscale neighborhoods where bloggers are emblematic of the competition that imperils the future of the Times — Fort Greene and Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, and Maplewood, Milburn and South Orange in New Jersey. (In Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, Brownstoner is the standout; in New Jersey there is BaristaNet, poster child for the hyperlocals.) Presumably, if The Local works there, it will be replicated elsewhere.
When news breaks in The Local’s turf, the Times breaks out the invite: come and work for us, for free. On Monday, the Times used its The Local Web page to reach out for help with what might have been a breaking news story. Take a look:
Did anything actually happen at Brooklyn Hospital on Monday? Was there a “truck leak”? As of 6:17 pm — six hours after the Times asked its readers to play reporter for a day — that remained anyone’s guess, since The Local did not post a follow-up. This is typical for pajama bloggers, not an example of world-class hyperlocal coverage we might expect from the newspaper of record.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The blogs (or their unforeseen later incarnations) which are likely to be central to a reformulated Fourth Estate will eagerly drop a quarter before posting rumors, and will follow-up on rumors that make it online through other channels (after all, no gatekeeper can will rumors off the internet — in the brave new world, everyone has a key). The Times actually made a profit last quarter!; it should make a call before (or at least immediately after) posting a breaking rumor.
[UPDATE: At 6:37 pm on Monday, the The Local finally confirmed that something did happen outside Brooklyn Hospital — an unidentified worker in the hospital's linen department said an unidentified tanker delivering diesel fuel had punctured and leaked; The Local also quoted an unidentified FDNY spokesman as saying that about 25 gallons of diesel fuel leaked and was cleared by a hazmat team from Queens which responded at 11:06 am — more than an hour before The Local's initial shoutout.]
Meanwhile, what else was The Local’s Fort Greene-Clinton Hill edition posting on Monday?
At 11:01 am, there was another free-labor pitch to the Craigslist set, combined with a RFQ (request for questions) to guide whichever free journos might wander in.
Yes, you, too, can be a poor, starving journalist:
[UPDATE: On Tuesday at 3:46 pm, The Local reported that the precinct council meeting referenced above had been cancelled, adding: "We’ll repost sooner to the new date, but will bank the great questions you’ve already posed. And don’t hesitate to email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to go and cover it for us in March."]
Then at 5:58 pm, The Local ran a rambling weather report.
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I’m not saying that the Times is off course in its partnership with CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism (whose students join neighborhood cameos in filing to The Local) and in its outreach to readers.
Jeff Jarvis‘ charges at CUNY are certainly getting more out of this relationship than Columbia University students did when they produced local newspapers like Bronx Beat, now online, or as they are doing now with the online Brooklyn Ink (which seems as much a training ground for how to assemble an aggregation site as anything else), and from peddling copy to community weeklies.
But let’s be candid here: The august NY Times is putting itself on the same professional level as the pajama bloggers.
The Gray Lady should be striving to match and exceed the higher standards and superior practices displayed by BaristaNet and similar Web sites, rather than racing to be an equal with those at the bottom of the blogging spectrum.