Greensboro sees birth of new alternative media
News & Record
A new kind of alternative press is emerging in Greensboro. The writers are local people who publish at their own Web sites. As individuals, these bloggers offer reporting and commentary that is useful, provocative and addictive. Collectively, they are building what could become the most important information channel to hit town since television arrived just after World War II.
These days I get almost all of my national and international news from the Web, with print providing some depth and analysis, and television good for live coverage and big-screen video. That model may be in the early stages of replicating itself at the local level.
It all starts with your neighbors, dozens of whom are now publishing the online journals called weblogs. They write what they know and what they see and what they would like to see. Take for example David Wharton, a UNCG professor active in historic preservation, who shares his thoughts at a site calledA Little Urbanity. Or Michael Dougherty, chief executive of a substantial Greensboro-based business, Kindermusik International, who writes about the progress of the company's new direct sales program. Or Jeff Thigpen, Guilford County's newly elected Register of Deeds, who is posting about the workings of his office, or the pseudonymous humorist known as Mr. Sun, who is just funny.
My guess is that this wave of local weblogs is only the beginning. More and more people will be writing on subjects they care about and activities in which they participate: high school and youth sports, churches, neighborhoods, politics, and so on. They will post pictures and video and audio files. The audience for any particular site might be minuscule (writer David Weinberger has updated Warhol by saying that on the Web, "everyone is famous for 15 people,") but others might attract a substantial audience.
In the aggregate, these local weblogs will tell us things about this place that traditional media are not set up to deliver. Newspapers and television aim for large audiences and are limited by time, space and cost to covering a relatively small number of stories. They also create a hierarchy of expertise, in which a few reporters tap a somewhat larger pool of sources to tell us what's happening and what it means. But there are many more stories out there that aren't getting told, and a lot of the knowledge and talent that's distributed across the population is beyond the reach of traditional media.
Cheap, simple Web publishing tools route around the big-media chokepoints to give anyone with access to a computer a voice online. How easy is it? One day last month I was on the phone with Greensboro journalist Sam Hieb. We started talking about creating a Web site devoted to Atlantic Coast Conference basketball. Before we hung up -- and it wasn't a long call -- we had a site calledACC Hoops up and running on the free Blogger service.
As sites proliferate, the question arises: How will readers navigate this sea of information? One answer is that communities will organize themselves around particular high-traffic pages that link to other weblogs. Some of these sites will grow organically, attracting readers with original content and links. Others are planned to be portals from the start.
A new site calledGreensboro101.com, created by veteran web-jockey Roch Smith Jr., aims to become such a hub by posting each new headline from participating bloggers in close to real time, serving as a kind of dynamic table of contents for local blogs. I would expect (although I don't know anything you don't) that the News & Record will have a role to play here, too, as a portal to the local Web.
A central node on the local blog network would be a powerful entity, and it might be a profitable one, too. When you start aggregating many readers in one place, advertisers pay attention. As Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson said in an influential essay calledThe Long Tail, there is substantial demand for information and products that are not best sellers, as shown by the success of deep-inventory companies like Amazon and NetFlix; cumulatively, this market for small sellers along the long tail of the sales chart may be larger than the mass-appeal business.
In the local media market, the emergence of high-traffic sites may be required to generate maximum readership and even some income for the individual blogs. Anderson says that both parts of the market need each other. That's why the development of Greensboro101 is exciting and why journalists and business people in cities across the country are experimenting with local blog aggregation.
Some bloggers are nervous that big sites will make money off their work. Billy Jones, who writes asBilly the Blogging Poet, suggests that writers band together to control ads sales for their content. John Robinson, the editor of this newspaper, responded to those fears at his own blog by saying, "Our vision isn't far enough along to answer many of your questions. We're experimenting and learning like everyone else. But as I look ahead, I don't think it is possible for us or any other media company to control/dominate/crush the citizen media."
I think John's got that right. There may be some money in the local online alternative media, and if there is then bloggers should find ways to get their share. But we shouldn't confuse the power of personal publishing with a get-rich-quick scheme, or forget why we started blogging in the first place. This thing will happen if a few people get paid, or a lot of people, or nobody. That's one measure of its real value. And that's the real local news.Edward Cone (www.edcone.com, firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column for the News & Record most Sundays.