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MARCH 29-30, 2012

Info Stream Bigger, Better than Two Years Ago

Patrick Barry will be on the panel, Understanding and Meeting Community Information Needs, at 10:30 a.m. Friday, March 30. He can be reached at 773-973-2169 or pbarry.chicago@gmail.com

Preparing for the March 30 panel on community information needs, I’ve been struck by the tremendous volume of news now available about Chicago neighborhoods.

I’ve been poring over print publications for three decades and been increasingly dismayed at the shrinking news holes and dwindling reporting. But the on-line flow is getting stronger. Just in the past few years there’s been a remarkable increase in fine-grained information about neighborhoods.

It’s very uneven, and the reader needs to apply more filters than when the news shops were full of experienced writers and editors. But there’s a new structure emerging — my panel colleague Fiona Morgan calls it a “media ecology” – that is delivering more information than the newspapers ever did. It’s sufficiently fascinating that I’ve organized it into a typology with five categories (see graphic; download the larger version). They range from the traditional, more-filtered sources to raw data streams.

  1. Traditional news – Decent reporting is flowing from Chicago suburbs (via TribLocal and Patch) and a few shoestring neighborhood news shops. Spotty, but of interest to a news junkie.
  2. Hyper-local sites – These are one-neighborhood blogs or web sites, e-newsletters – usually with a strong point of view – and something new we call portals in Chicago, which allow contributions from anyone who wants to sign up (with light moderation).
  3. Special-interest news – These are niche sites sorted by neighborhood. Curbed.com does a terrific job on real estate and is now live in 11 cities. A non-profit site I’ve been involved with, newcommunities.org, covers community development in 14 neighborhoods.
  4. Crowd-sourced news and tip sheetsEveryBlock started out as a pure data stream (no filtering, no context) but has become a free-for-all stream offering great info mixed with data and junk. It’s in 16 cities. Chicago’s is well developed in some neighborhoods, offering news almost as soon as it happens.
  5. Unfiltered public data – Many governments are releasing huge data sets in the interests of “open data.” In Chicago, it’s a fire hose of information: hard to manage, hard to use.

These sites often supplement their streams via Facebook, Twitter, Flickr or e-newsletters, making it easier to access. None of the categories is perfect. Each has inherent problems ranging from inadequate revenue to biased reporting or inaccurate content. I’ll go into some of those problems on the panel, and I look forward to learning what others are seeing out there.

Assessing the Digital Media Landscape

In June 2011, a groundbreaking Federal Communications Commission staff report offered the following assessment of our digital media landscape:

“In most ways today’s media landscape is more vibrant than ever, offering faster and cheaper distribution networks, fewer barriers to entry, and more ways to consume information. Choice abounds. Local TV stations, newspapers and a flood of innovative web start-ups are now using a dazzling array of digital tools to improve the way they gather and disseminate the news — not just nationally or internationally but block-by-block. The digital tools that have helped topple governments abroad are providing Americans powerful new ways to consume, share and even report the news.

Yet, in part because of the digital revolution, serious problems have arisen, as well. Most significant among them: in many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting. This is likely to lead to the kinds of problems that are, not surprisingly, associated with a lack of accountability — more government waste, more local corruption, less effective schools, and other serious community problems. The independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism — going so far as to call it crucial to a healthy democracy — is in some cases at risk at the local level.”

With this assessment as its background, I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society, is staging a major multidisciplinary conference to evaluate the potential for online journalism to meet America’s ongoing information needs. “The Future of Online Journalism:  News, Community, and Democracy in the Digital Age will bring together leading figures from communication studies, economics, journalism, law, and sociology to discuss the economic viability of online news and the impact of online journalism on community information needs and democratic self-governance. The presentations will include the following topics: