My day so far has included writing a story about a local art exhibit, reading the fire department reports, writing the police blotter and visiting Town Hall to talk to township officials. My day will wrap up with covering the Board of Education meeting, which has a presentation about new report cards on its agenda.
Until recently, a fender bender or a gas leak in Millburn, N.J., was treated like the minor event that it is. Then Jennifer Connic arrived in town. Connic, 32, is the editor of a Web site called Millburn.Patch.com, part of a chain of local sites called Patch.com, and since February she’s been covering mundane events in this suburban town of 20,000 residents with a zeal most journalists re-serve for a big scoop.
But is cover a car accident mundane? Is covering a boiler overheating and causing the fire department to show up mundane? Is covering a Board of Education meeting mundane?
The reason we cover these “mundane events” is because they’re not so mundane to the 20,000 people who live here and the thousands more who visit Millburn-Short Hills every day. People may be diverted off John F. Kennedy Parkway, but they’re not sure why. It’s our job to tell them it was a car crash that sent one person to the hospital. We tell people about what transpired at a Township Committee or Board of Education meeting because they all can’t go and watch what happens.
But is it really any news anyone covers these events? Weekly newspapers have been covering them for years. It’s why I quibble with the term “hyperlocal journalism.” It’s community journalism, an age-old craft so many people know from their hometown weekly newspapers.
The only difference now is it’s online. We can tell people in real time what’s happening in their hometowns. We can tell them there’s an accident on the highway right now causing a back-up. We can tell them what’s happening at the school board meeting right now.
When I was editor of WestportNow.com, we used to joke about the refreshers—the people who sat at their computers constantly refreshing the page looking for something new. As much as we joked, they exist. That’s what the type of journalism I practice causes.
It also causes people to turn to some place like WestportNow or Millburn-Short Hills Patch first when they want to know something. WestportNow crashed for a short time during the April 2007 floods because people heard the sirens alerting them to evacuate because of a predicted flood. They logged on looking for the news. When people see emergency vehicles in Millburn-Short Hills, they come to my site first. And if they don’t see something when they visit, they send me an email asking what happened. I sometimes learn more from my readers than I do from the police and fire scanner.
After the Newsweek article hit the Internet and just about every journalism blog on Monday, I received a piece of fan mail. The person wrote, “I read about you in Newsweek and hopefully you are part of a trend of going back to local coverage. I think a lot of newspapers have killed themselves by being arrogant and losing the connection with the community.”
Arrogant or not, he is right about how newspapers are covering your community. I see things that happen in the city where I live, and I don’t know of a news outlet to turn to find out what’s happening. I can’t count on The Record to tell me why the bridge over the Passaic River was closed. And I can’t count on them to tell me now.
It’s sad because the type of journalism I practice and the types that weeklies and even daily newspapers have practiced for so long really is vanishing. Beat reporting like how I practice it is a lost art. Is it because journalism students don’t learn how to do it? Or is it because they don’t want to spend so much time doing community reporting? Or is it because of newspapers’ need to pull back from covering each town with earnest like it did in better financial times?
I hope my generation of journalist isn’t a dying breed. Because if that’s true, we’re bound to be in some trouble when my generation decides to move on to different projects. Remember, Watergate started as a simple court story covered by the court beat reporter.