Thursday, February 11, 2010

TV news websites make local news inroads

Last November, in a blog post about the crisis in journalism, I made a prediction about TV news websites filling in part of the news void left by newspapers that are unable to provide adequate coverage of local events. I said:
In the short to medium term, I see an opportunity for local and national television news websites to pick some of the slack -- they have far more robust advertising-based revenue streams than newspapers and magazines, and some broadcast outlets (at least in Boston) have proven to be avid users of new technology and shown a willingness to experiment with ways in which online and video content can be integrated. They are taking some important steps toward reinventing themselves online, and that's a good thing.
This week, I had a chance to see how that is playing out in my own backyard. Dr. Amy Bishop, the alleged shooter in the University of Alabama campus killings on February 12, has a significant connection to another incident that occurred in my community (Newton, Massachusetts) many years ago. In 1993, someone mailed a bomb to a Children's Hospital professor living in Newton. It didn't go off, but in the course of the subsequent investigation suspicion fell on Amy Bishop, who at the time was a Harvard graduate student who knew the professor.

In the news business, if a major national story has a local connection, local media will jump all over it. They know the communities. They know who to ask when it comes to finding additional information or getting new reaction. They know the officials to talk with, and what records to examine. If they do a good job, national interest will tap into the local story. Indeed, that's exactly what happened with the Boston Globe, which took the lead on investigating Dr. Bishop's local history in and around Boston (she grew up in Braintree, Massachusetts, where she was involved in another violent incident in the 1980s). Local TV news also pounded the pavement, talking with local witnesses and police.

But the community newspaper in Newton -- the Newton Tab -- didn't even have a story about the local connection this week in the print edition. Online, Tab staff managed a tweet and a single-line blog post, which linked to a GateHouse News Service report based on an online WCVB report (text, not video) that described some of the Newton connections.

In addition, the GateHouse report was sloppy. No location-specific details pertaining to the Newton connection were included, and a comment left by a reader noted a major problem with GateHouse's interpretation of the WCVB report. GateHouse said that ABC affiliate reported that Bishop had "sent a pipe bomb to a Newton doctor in 1993", but reader "GerryMander" made the following observation in the comments section:
NO reputable news organization, including WCVB, reported that Amy Bishop had sent a pipe bomb to a Newton doctor. Re-read WCVB's story. It notes that she has been 'linked' and 'connected' to the case. Other news outlets report she and her husband were interviewed by police and were persons of interest in the case. That is a FAR cry from conviction. I would urge you to rewrite your article.
As of this writing, GateHouse has not corrected the report and the Newton Tab blog has no updates or additional information about the Newton connection. Meanwhile, the Boston Globe and local TV stations continue to devote reporting resources to this important story, and publish the findings on their websites for local and national audiences to see. WCVB has published a dozen articles and videos on its website, and interest is high, judging by the fact that one of them is currently listed in its "most popular" content.

TV news websites will continue to upset the local news equation because of their steady revenue streams, existing editorial staffs, and their ability to augment their video coverage with additional online reporting. And that's a positive development -- if local papers like the Tab are unable or unwilling to provide such coverage, there are alternative sources of information to turn to online.

However, I do think that local newspapers that are able to devote reporting resources to such stories will probably do a better job than a network TV affiliate, which may not be as familiar with the town or its people. Another issue to consider: Communities which don't have large enough populations (and advertising revenue) to support TV newsrooms and websites will suffer, because no news organization is able to cover the news. There may be an opportunity for bloggers or other people using new media outlets like YouTube and Twitter to fill in some of the gaps, but the quality may be poor and such sources cannot (yet) be depended upon to consistently report major news events.

Image: YouTube screenshot, Zennie62

Sources and research: Boston Globe, Newton Tab, Newton Tab blog, WCVB website, CBS blog, YouTube.

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