Anna Clark, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, has a story about the end of AnnArbor.com and what sorts of alternatives people have when they are looking for news. I get a brief mention.
The question I want to explore is what does it mean to no longer have a single daily newspaper, or even a special daily comprehensive news web site, but instead to have a world where news about your home town is coming from lots of places. Further, I want to make very clear the difference between urgent breaking news and the sort of slog it out, cover it every day beat journalism that is mostly interesting in the aggregate.
Twitter has always been good for breaking news, whether it be local, national, or global. I'm perfectly convinced that in the case of the 100-year flood, we'll be covered. There's enough individual people who are capable of writing about what's happening to them in enough local detail that if an issue is city or county wide, Ann Arbor will be notified. Newspapers always do their best work in response to crisis, and local bloggers, radio, and metro Detroit television will all chip in. If something horrible or wonderful happens, we're all good as far as news goes.
That can't be said for every town, by the way. When Marshall, Michigan had an Enbridge pipeline burst in its midst, there was no local news media to write about or blog about the weird hydrocarbon smell. Ann Arbor has enough of a "diffuse media ecosystem" that such things should be noticed! However, you can't even count on that - a long-seeping sewer spill in the Arboretum was unnoticed for weeks - you'd hope that we'd catch something faster here.
It's the problem of news that's not urgent that I'm more worried about. Small retail businesses come and go, and you can't count on the Ann Arbor News to write about all of those retail changes. Crime, petty and otherwise, gets reported when the police department wants it to be reported, and thus you'll see a lot more Ypsilanti crime in the Ann Arbor paper than Ann Arbor crime just because of the willingness of YPD to share. The Ann Arbor Chronicle does a fine job of bird-dogging city council, but its ferociously detailed coverage only extends so far. The Ann Arbor Observer only comes out monthly, but it routinely scoops the daily media.
Short of finding someone with more money than sense to start a new publication, what can you do? The CJR story says that people turn to "small independent news sites to fill in the gaps." As the Ann Arbor News shrinks, the opportunity to fill in the gaps should only grow. A narrowly focused topic that's interesting and that the dwindling mainstream media only gives cursory attention to would be perfect, and if you can give the world quick and accurate writing as well as compelling photography you'll be all set.
Small independent news sites are usually a labor of love, in some fashion. Notably they come and go as people's priorities change or as they age out of the "independent grad student blogger" demographic. It's almost the case that you need to recruit a new crop of writers every fall, purging your blogroll of the recently departed and scouring the net for the newest up-and-coming.So the local media infrastructure is active - there's no shortage of writing about Ann Arbor, both in local and in national publications. It's also incredibly diffuse, without a single dominant comprehensive news source that covers everything in detail. My best solution to date has to be tuned in to Twitter to catch what I can as it goes past, and write down what I see that's not getting enough notice so that I can contribute my small share.