BY EMILY CULBERTSON
The Community Media Workshop’s third look at the local news scene reveals a changed media landscape, but perhaps not in the ways we anticipated. Many of the online news startups we featured in the first report (Chi-Town Daily News and Windy Citizen, for example) are gone, and legacy media outlets are continuing to find their way online. That said, many of the challenges facing local news that we noted in our first report (lack of diversity of voices in the news and lack of coverage in pressing issues) seem, in our review, to be persistent challenges facing the Chicago news ecosystem. We also see a great deal of variation in producing truly “online first” news. Some sites update breaking news regularly; other sites only republish the print, audio or video content primarily intended for offline distribution.
More online news outlets does not necessarily mean more varied news coverage.
Workshop reviewers noted a remarkable consistency in news judgment, particularly among citywide news websites and especially among television stations, which seem to draw from the same pool of headline news. Reviewers noted being “underwhelmed” by the lack of depth in city news, but noted that the Chicago Tribune’s coverage of the Sikh temple shooting was a remarkable exception. Generally, few sites went out of their way to incorporate diverse perspectives into their news coverage, and the sites of daily newspapers still rise to the top for depth of coverage.
Investigative reporting helps citywide news outlets stand out from each other.
Investigative reporting helped keep news organi- zations away from pack journalism, although some investigative reporting (“Is your manicure safe?”) did not seem particularly useful.
Sites vary in their use of web and social media tools for storytelling.
Some sites were quite good at incorporating video, audio and appropriate photography into websites. Others relied upon stock art, which failed to add anything useful to the page. Likewise, many sites did not take advantage of hyperlinking to other
resources in their stories or keeping content up to date. Sites for TV stations and shows varied in their practices in providing written content to supple- ment video. Crain’s use of Storify to capture ChickFil-A reactions stood out as a good use of online tools for storytelling.
Reader engagement with online news sites is infrequent, and where it exists, it is not of high quality.
While this is not entirely surprising — the number of commenters on a website is often a small fraction of its readership, and those participating tend to be passionate about issues — it was surprising to Workshop reviewers that most sites had few comments, while the ones that did sometimes tolerated uncivil remarks that might better have been moderated. Workshop reviewers said they wished that sites placed greater prominence on the voices of their readers and made better use of user-generated content, such as photography. Also, Workshop reviewers wished they saw more responsiveness from site operators or community managers to people commenting on their content on the site, Facebook or Twitter.
Innovation is happening on the neighborhood level.
The biggest diversity in sites, business models and news presentation is happening in neighborhood news, where online startups compete with weekly papers and efforts funded by foundations and nonprofits. Add to that innovation EveryBlock and the New Communities aggregator, and you see the most diversity in online news approaches in neighborhoods.
WBEZ stood out as a site that follows its own news judgment in a civic-minded way and uses the tools of the web well.
Although it was not the highest-ranking site in our report, the reviewers felt WBEZ showcases in- depth local reporting featuring diverse perspectives and does not solely follow the pack. Reporting incorporates video and pictures into the site better than many other sites. WBEZ also aggregates content from other sources well and features a “lively” stable of bloggers, making the online outlet not solely an adjunct of the broadcast, but a thriving independent source of news.