“local” is lowercase

Cover of  "All the President's Men"
This book is irrelevant

A friend is working to make his big newspaper more relevant online. This paper has lots of local outposts, and he wants to get them involved.

So how’s it working out?

“The trouble is Journalists,” he complains. “No matter what the plan is, they have a problem with it.”

That uppercase ‘J’ — ouch.

Yet I agree: Too often, uppercase Journalists with a gatekeeper role — as editors, implementers, or role models — block progress by the very companies that could be making a difference.

What’s an uppercase Journalist, exactly?

Well, you probably know a few. Whether from conviction or insecurity, they promote the romantic view of journalism: Their craft (and their employment, by extension) is crucial to a healthy democracy.

Such high-mindedness is fine when it’s backed by real feats of Journalism. I’ve known some stellar investigative reporters, and I admire them greatly. They’ve earned an uppercase ‘J’ and any attitude that goes with it.

But few journalists of any sort — and fewer still local ones — can point to any such feat during their careers. Local news is overwhelmingly a lowercase affair, both in its day-to-day tasks and in its overall effect.

That’s no criticism; life itself is mostly lowercase. But let’s keep our perspective. There is nothing sacred to be protected here.

And there’s much to be built, if we can just get over ourselves.

Alas, many uppercase Journalists are loath to do that. Instead they reflexively cite ethics or professionalism whenever they don’t want to do something.

Occasionally it’s something bad, like killing a story at the behest of an advertiser. OK, fine. But mostly it’s just something different, like tweeting from a local event — or something that was suggested by the wrong person, like an idea from a sales exec.

To justify their balkiness, uppercasers may also appeal to the gods, as in this inane argument against efforts by the Journal-Register Company to incorporate social media into its local reporting:

Now stop for a moment, and try to imagine Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reporting Watergate and being asked to do any of this.

We’re talking, mind you, about covering a routine council meeting. I admire Woodward and Bernstein as much as the next guy, but I’ve covered council meetings and, to paraphrase John Cleese, Watergate don’t enter into it.

A more personal example of uppercase obstructionism:

A couple of years ago, I proposed a network of local blogs to a big paper here in the DC area. They took me seriously, which was nice, but we disagreed about what blogging should involve.

“Who would edit these bloggers?” asked an uppercase Editor, who’s since left the job.

“No one,” I said. “We pick decent people, give them a framework, and fix any problems as they arise.”

“Copy edit?”

“No one.”

“So they’d just … publish?”

This guy couldn’t fathom (or wouldn’t acknowledge) that his brand of Journalism, often called the first rough draft of history, might have its own first rough draft — a more ephemeral, immediate, and relevant draft, ultimately, than anything that’s been vetted by a half-dozen editors.

Put otherwise: Like it or not, online is a different medium. It has different standards, practices and expectations. It isn’t print journalism that’s published on the Web, any more than print journalism is history that’s published in a newspaper.

So why should print journalists be deciding what their companies do on the Web, as is usually the practice now? They shouldn’t, I’d say, unless they can quash their uppercase impulses.

Otherwise we’ll get the latter-day equivalent of newspapers published by historians.

Ultimately this editor and I disagreed about other things, too. He was probably right about some of them. Still, he was applying the wrong standards — and his paper’s online efforts, particularly in local, still suffer from his tenure.

When it comes to building local media online, uppercase Journalism simply isn’t the point. Speaking truth to power, identifying corruption, crafting great prose, earning awards: These are secondary matters at best. (Evidence suggests that they’re secondary for most local papers, too, but that’s another matter.)

Even civic journalism, I think, is an overly dignified term. Until we’ve gotten this medium off the ground, our goals should be modest to a fault. We can succeed by aiming to provide just two things:

  • Timely, relevant facts
  • Community discussion about those facts

These are lowercase goals. They can be facilitated by journalists — or even by Journalists — but also by other people. Uppercase aspirations just get in the way.

In some towns, the best local news site might be 100% journalist-free: It might come directly from a local government, for instance, or a homeowners’ association, or it might emerge organically on Facebook. It might not include any coverage of the town council whatsoever. It might just be about shopping.

None of this would be bad. Let a thousand flowers bloom. And don’t fret about the crusaders on whom democracy depends; they’ll find their place.

The real choice faced by today’s uppercase Journalists, I believe, is whether they want to take part in a lowercase medium. Will they support their newspaper company if it wants to try a shopping site, for instance? Will they promote it, even as it finds its way? Or will they disdain and undermine it?

When Journalists insist on setting uppercase terms for their involvement, they only ensure their role as bit players.