Thursday, January 13, 2005

Is the internet "local"?

Unless you work for or subscribe to one of "The Bigs" (NYT, USAT, WP, LAT, WSJ, etc.), you've probably noticed that news judgment on 1A can get a bit screwy. One day the lead is five killed in Iraq; the next day it's a local water shortage, and the story about SEVEN people killed in Iraq is on 4A.

That's because the mantra at the mid-majors and the mini-metros and the small dailies is "local-local-local." It's what all the readers surveys tell us. It's what people in focus groups tell us. We want more local news. To desperate editors, "local-local-local" can become something akin to a fetish.

Compound that message with the impending sense of doom brought about by the consolidation trend and the media wars of the last couple of years. There's a sense that since smaller dailies can't cover the world like the NYT, they should cede that role to The Bigs and compete for readers with an even heavier emphasis on "local-local-local."

Balance this against the needs of plain old readers, who want good local coverage but need all the news of the day. They don't care about our competitive strategies and internal angst. They want the daily report, and they would like it prioritized with some sense of significance. They can't figure out what the hell we're doing, and quite frankly, neither can we.

My question: what IS local? Is local just geographic? Is local for a bedroom suburban community just that bedroom suburb, or does it include the city where the residents work, party and shop? Is local a place or an identity? And if you live in a suburb, do you REALLY care one wit about the "local-local" coverage from one suburb over?

In a world where most of my gossip and conversation occurs via e-mail, one has to ask, is the internet local? Heaven help us if the answer is "no."