Here we are in the great weekend marking the beginning of the 235th year since we gave notice to old King George. We celebrate July 4th — the instant of the camel’s back breaking, our collective Popeye moment — but we neglect to mention the many years to come where the British, unsurprisingly, did not simply wish us well and hop onto the nearest eastward-sailing clipper ship.
We also tend to forget amid the fireworks and Bedding Barn sales that, 15 years after our first wobbly steps toward nationhood, we finally adopted a rulebook — the Constitution and its Amendments — the first of which guaranteed, famously, freedom of religion, freedom of gathering and petition, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.
Without those, this would be a very different place.
I’m thinking about this because of the calendar, of course, but also because I’m very close to returning to something I care about very much — journalism.
This time, though, I won’t be barking through a two-way radio at television news crews or working to convince newspapers that they’re no longer in the newspaper business. This time I’ll be joining a team at Aol’s Patch.com that has the simultaneously simple and audacious goal of helping towns and communities throughout the United States to learn more about themselves through the shared creation of local, community-driven news and information sites.
To transmogrify Professor Jay Rosen’s quote, this is the news formerly known as hyperlocal.
I say that because the news in my community isn’t weirdly small or odd or quirky. It’s not hyperlocal, despite what a hundred newsroom improvement committees said in the past five years. It’s just news. It’s what happened here, and it matters to me. It’s the topic that everybody’s talking about that somehow never makes it into The Sun. It’s the bike shop that opened and the restaurant that closed. It’s our elaborate system for shoveling the blizzard’s snow-heaps long before a city plow is rumored and it’s the kids cartoons projected through the shadows of lightning bugs onto a garage door on a steamy June evening.
Most of us live here, in a community. Whether it’s a town or a neighborhood or just a couple of blocks that don’t fit into the greater scope of the county’s Master Plan, this place is where we begin and end most of our days. We celebrate and we lament, festoon our homes with cardboard storks and greet out-of-state aunts at the door, come to mourn and remember with a folder of photos, a lasagna and a bottle of red wine.
Major metro newspapers have tried to get at this, with spotty success, as have weeklies (many owned by those same daily newspapers). Independent individual efforts have sprung up as well, many capturing the rhythms and news of a community with an attention to detail that the dailies and community weeklies miss.
But there’s never been an effort like Patch. On the network’s about page, the manifesto is clear: “We’re a community-specific news and information platform dedicated to providing comprehensive and trusted local coverage for individual towns and communities.” There’s a full-time editor for each of the dozens of sites that have already launched, as well as a budget for freelancers. These sites are not merely aggregators of existing content, or blogs commenting on the comings and goings of their town. Each Patch site generates original reporting about its community every day. Each Patch site is a reliable source of news and information for a community about itself, and, increasingly, an online gathering point for ongoing discussion and community-created content, including news stories, announcements, photos and videos.
For years, when I worked in newspapers, I hoped that we could get there. In just a few weeks, I get to join the team at Patch and throw my shoulder into the best hope yet for unlocking the potential of true community journalism.
More news, as it happens.