Before I came to Yale, I didn’t realize there was such a thing as local news and newspapers. You see, I was raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – a sprawling metropolis with 6.3 million inhabitants in the city proper and about 14 million in the greater area – which meant that two of the country’s most important papers were Rio papers, which guaranteed we’d get some local news coverage. Most importantly though, I didn’t really care for the local news. Rio is so large that something that happens there doesn’t necessarily feel any closer to me than something that happens across the country, unless it happens in my neighborhood or to someone I know.
At Yale, I was first introduced to local news through the Yale Daily News. Although I like the YDN, it took some adjusting. For example, I had to revise what I believed “counted” as news. I was used to only seeing tragic or monumental headlines on the first page, so seeing profiles there felt weird at first. But there was something nice about having a daily that told me what was going on in my direct surroundings and I found that it even helped me have a much better sense of community than I had ever had before. The newspaper essentially helped me feel like I belonged simply by allowing me to know what was going on.
But Yale is a small community made up of relatively similar people (in spite of what the Admissions Office tells you) working toward similar goals and in a small environment. Could the model work in a larger, more diverse community? To answer that question I decided to take a look at the New Haven Independent.
The Independent was started in 2005 by Paul Bass, Yale class of ’82 and veteran New Haven journalist, and has gathered national attention for its high-impact local journalism. The online paper goes up five times a week and focuses exclusively on New Haven news. When I first looked at their website, I was a little overwhelmed. There’s just a lot that’s going on in their front page – but only 3 new articles. The rest are announcements, calendars, other New Haven websites and links to their partner publications (La Voz, Crime Log, Branford Eagle which looks like the NHI, but a lot clearner, and C-HIT). Once you get over the clutter though, there is a lot there. The paper publishes about 20 stories everyday and they are split into sections (33), neighborhoods (29) or features (17). Because this was a paper created online and for the computer reader, every story features one or more pictures and many have video integrated and every story has share buttons, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Another cool feature of the website, is that the reader can sign up for an NHI newsletter.
In an article written on Jay Rosen’s website PressThink in August of 2006, just one short year after the Independent’s launch, Bass explained that he had been moved to start the paper because New Haven had lost a lot of its media outlets with the corporatization of news media. In the NHI’s about page, the editor explains that the paper is “rooted in and devoted to the city” and that “thank to the internet, (…) news-deprived citizens need no longer be hostages to out-of-state media conglomerates.”His goal was to “resuscitate real community reporting” and to return to New Haven the news coverage it had lost (and will be losing further this year, as the New Haven register condenses its operations). Through Bass’s model, readers are encouraged to send corrections in exchange for NHI mugs, comment on articles (though they took a short hiatus in February that caused much debate and was covered on this blog here and here), send in pictures and videos, as well as suggest stories.
What differentiates the NHI from a blog, is that it is more about informing the community than providing it with editorialized opinions. In the same Jay Rosen article, Bass admits that citizen journalism didn’t actually take off as planned, but that the community engages by reacting to journalism. Bass essentially realized a need for news, and left commenting up to other people. He gets at the core of one of the issues of citizen journalism – that citizens don’t exactly want to be journalists as much as they want the ability to provide feedback to news.
To maintain its independence and its community focus, the Independent runs as a non-profit. Bass says he got the idea from journalist turned blogger Daniel Conover, who a while ago articulated the position of “What if there were a way to treat public interest reporting more like a public service and less like a business?” The New Haven Independent is supported by the Online Journalism Project, whose goal is to support “hyperlocal and issues oriented online news websites”. The Project is mostly supported by foundation grants, sponsorships and donations with its biggest funder being the the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.
All in all, I must say I took to the NHI’s efforts. The website still seems a little too cluttered for me, but the comments section is active (in spite of moderation!) and the editor affirms that people do catch its edits. To measure how much impact it has on the community is nearly impossible, but it has put together a good effort and does a good job of covering New Haven news well, regardless of location or topic.