The Net Redefines “Local”

The dichotomy of proximity online poses both challenges and opportunities for local media companies today. People are as much a part of niche communities and redefined geography online as they are a part of the homes and neighborhoods that surround them, and local media companies dare not let this escape us as we consider our changing tomorrows.

The new research from Pew – Local News in a Digital Age – examines in depth 3 American news markets and provides a little bit of something for everybody in the local news business. Pew examined Denver,CO, the 17th Nielsen DMA; Macon, GA, DMA #119; and Sioux City, IA, the 149th DMA. In each location, local TV news ranks highest in terms of where people go for local news, but it is the variety of that news that reveals something very interesting: the smaller the place, the more people like the community, are involved in the community, and identify keeping up with the local news as a reflection of that.

pew2The chart to the right reveals that this phenomenon, known in academia as “provincialism in news,” is far less a factor in a metropolitan area like Denver than it is in Macon or Sioux City. This validation of provincial theory opens the door to the turd in the punchbowl of the local news farm system: people passing through small towns on their path to bigger and better markets, usually defined as more money, more prestige, and perhaps even stardom. In academic journalism circles, big city news is known as “cosmopolitan,” so these young people in pursuit of fame will often fight for stories that mean more to their resumes and video examples than they do to viewers in those parochial areas. This is a likely part of what drove a young weekend TV reporter on a Saturday morning in Fargo, ND many years ago to climb a fence at the airport for one of those “test the security” segments. It didn’t work. He not only got caught, but he was arrested, pleaded guilty and eventually terminated. The station was embarrassed and humiliated.

This happens often in newsrooms staffed by talented, aggressive, and ambitious young reporters and managers who enter the building with one foot out the door. I have long been of the opinion that local media companies in smaller markets should look to the community itself to find people to represent their news. It is easier to teach a local person what they need to know – especially in today’s “everybody’s a media company” environment – than it is to find somebody who will not be simply passing through. Pew’s research strongly suggests this would be smart, for the viewers in those markets would likely recognize and praise the effort.

Provincialism is defined as “concern for one’s own area or region at the expense of national or supranational unity.” When used pejoratively, the definition shifts to “narrow mindedness” or “unsophisticated,” but in journalism, it is a focus on anything local, up to and including occasional cheerleading. Howard Ziff wrote of this in a 1986 essay:

It is a great sadness of American journalism today that however diverse their geographic background and polished their skills, so many journalists are valued because they are interchangeable; they put themselves behind the word processor in whatever city to which they are called by corporate employers. The unique value of each person and each region is thus endangered by a system of replaceable parts…

Indeed, and it’s also true for their managers, for they, too, are often just replaceable parts.

Investigative reporters in small markets must exercise great care in calling the bad guys bad, for even the “good old boy” networks of the South play a major role in maintenance of the parochial status quo. A willingness to get a feel for the community should always precede jumping headlong into outing everybody’s neighbor just because we can. Local politicians, especially those who spend the community’s money, are another matter entirely.

What the Pew study shows is that, at least in small markets, proximity equals relevance. This, however, is being disrupted by the Internet, which means change and opportunity for media companies everywhere. If we’re going to talk about Pew and proximity, therefore, we must also be open to discussing the disruption. One of the discouraging factors about smaller places is that, driven by the same dynamics of those reporters just passing through, young people tend to leave and only come back to visit old friends and family. The Net, and especially via Social Media, allows these people to stay in touch with the places of their origin permanently, if they so choose. So geography is only but one of many factors in determining how people use the Web, whether it’s local or otherwise.

claydocdavidstoweThe Net is redefining community, which includes the word “local,” and this has ramifications for local media companies big and small. To get a better understanding of the matter, I reached out to 4 experts in culture and media: NYU’s Clay Shirky, writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies; Harvard’s Doc Searls and David Weinberger, two of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto and the authors of New Clues; and Stowe Boyd, Web Researcher, Anthropologist and Futurist.

Shirky noted that “the net has turned local from a word that describes a geography, with people in it, to a network of people that share a geography.” He’s right, and that geography doesn’t always mean the ground upon which we stand. He added, “It also means that people can behave like locals from far away.” This is important, for it opens a brand new revenue door for those who serve local businesses and shines a light, again, on the importance of data to local media company digital offerings, one that is lost in the local reach-frequency obsession of traditional media.

The view of “us” from elsewhere, therefore, has much greater power than we think. Ask any economic development executive anywhere, and we’ll find that this is the way expanding businesses think. Insofar as provincial journalism is concerned, this is a very delicate line to walk. I remember long ago speaking with the owner of a highly provincial newspaper in the South. We talked about the community, and I mentioned that “I hear there’s a lot of great growth ahead for the area,” to which he responded, “Oh I hope not!”

Futurist Boyd notes that “locality” is changing. “It’s coming to mean those that we are close to,” he said, “no matter where they reside, no matter their mother tongue, no matter where they lay their heads.”

”We are increasingly affiliating into tribes of like-minded participants in various sorts of discourse, influence, and following, and ‘locality’ is tied to our coordinates in a networked social space. Many don’t understand that who we choose to follow online defines our locality in the online social network, and also the shape of the network, overall. We choose who are the ‘locals’ we interact with most frequently, and at the same time we define who are the ‘others’ that we seldom or never encounter. In a connected world, the most important decision is who to follow.”

Once again, this spells both challenges and opportunities for local media, because some niches are truly local, and those who are close to them may not be fans of our local media brands. I always wince whenever a media company takes a niche and slaps their brand on it. No. No. No. Local media brands mean less than zero to those for whom these niches are important.

Doc Searls wrote to say that the Net reduces to zero the “functional distance between everybody and everything on it. The cost too.” He adds that this is exactly what it was designed to do, and he calls the fact that it actually succeeded “one of the most amazing developments in the history of civilization.”

Think about it: what the Net gives everything is the opposite of “long distance,” which phone companies sold until the Net made the concept ridiculous — at least in the sphere of communications. And what’s more human than communicating?

…Having everything in the world one click away from everything else is a new experience for human beings, their institutions, and their things.

This is why our insistence that our only value is to those whose “localness” is determined by proximity. It’s also why the marketplace itself is turned on its head and why Designated Market Areas (DMAs) based on geography have decreasing value as people become more sophisticated in their use of the Net. One-to-one from anywhere also reduces the distribution costs for television programmers and syndicators, and this is a great threat to the broadcasting industry. The networks, however, are not inclined to go down this path, even though the early success of HBO Now reveals a significant opportunity. For the time being, however, the networks are making enormous sums of money through reverse compensation from affiliates and cable retransmission fees. How long that will last is anybody’s guess.

One of the truly remarkable thinkers in the world today is David Weinberger, a Harvard colleague of Doc Searls. Weinberger told me that “Traditional locality is an accident of space. Net locality is an accident of meaning.” This unique observation comes from both study and experience.

Physical proximity provides … commonalities, which is why the weather is always a safe place to begin a local conversation. It also usually provides some commonalities of language, norms, and shared interests in maintaining the place as habitable.

Net localities come into existence because people are interested in the same thing. They are heavily filtered by shared language, and shared norms…

I used to think that Net localities therefore are preferable. I now see it as more mixed. There’s something good about being forced to live with people with whom you do not share as many norms as you’d like, and geography does that for you (to you?).

Weinberger also notes that the conflict between proximity and shared interest is what shows up in reader or viewer comments. “(P)eople who do not share norms of conversation and civility … can turn a discussion thread about Cadbury chocolate into a life-ruining online machete fight.” Sounds familiar, eh?

The idea that the Net is a separate place, as in “virtual” or “cyberspace,” is a misleading metaphor that contributes to misunderstanding – and especially misapplication – of the principles by which we should be judging success or failure online. As local media companies, our mission is to the community that functions through proximity. If that’s a smaller place, then our service should be vastly more provincial than cosmopolitan, as we learned from the Pew research. However, moving proximity as a mere extension of our brands to the Web profoundly limits the opportunities we have, because our content creation expertise has vastly more applications where time and distance aren’t the only determining factors.

While we still have the chance, should we not be creating new value for our companies by establishing local and other niche beachheads, addressing those who have moved away and have loved ones left behind, expanding our advertising reach through local, regional, and statewide networks, building merchant portals based not only on our DMAs but beyond, and an infinite number of other possibilities beyond simply the repurposing of our branded content? The answer seems pretty obvious, but that “cyberspace” metaphor lures traditional media into the trap of viewing this remarkable innovation as just another channel for us to use in the expansion of our core competency.

Think about what Doc Searls contributed above, that the Net is “one of the most amazing developments in the history of civilization.” A big part of that is shifting the definition of the word “local” to one that is multifaceted and meaningful for communicating. In a complex world where everything and everybody is just a click away, those who choose to stay fixated only on proximity as a value generator will find themselves falling farther and farther behind.