Tom Patton: Welcome, Jacksonville Observer
Today marks what may be the beginning of a new era in Jacksonville news. The blog “JaxDaily” has become “The Jacksonville Observer”, following a trend of hyper-local news outlets that are springing up around the country.
CNN.com noted this trend last week. As such notable newspapers as “The Seattle Post-Intelligencer” move to an online-only format under a new name, a business model is emerging up that has local people covering local stories and leaving the big national stories alone. With so many outlets devoted to the big national stories, local coverage sometimes seems to get short shrift. In hyper-local journalism, the marketplace may again be giving us insight as to what people want to read and understand. One might think that’s counter-intuitive on the “worldwide web”, and yet it speaks to a readership that is interested in their communities, and have found the web to be a perfect delivery vehicle for that content.
And so with today’s first edition, “The Jacksonville Observer” becomes such an entity. Publisher Austin Cassidy nurtured his blog as far as it would go, and this is the next logical step. That effort should be applauded.
It’s not that the existing news outlets don’t do a good job covering the news, because they do. They all have professional journalists who invest a lot of time into getting a quality product on the air or into print. In today’s climate of shrinking newsroom budgets and media consolidation, that’s not always an easy task. But there should always be room for another publication, in my view. Another voice that might have the ability to invest in a story not constrained by a newscast time budget or the number of available column inches.
Today’s online journalist or publisher, though, faces many challenges. Association with a newspaper, radio, or television station, comes with a certain established credibility. One assumes that the journalists gathering the news for the legacy media sites are trained, understand sourcing a story, know how to follow up a lead, and recognize that the line between editorial comment and factual reporting should be bright. In an era when anyone with a laptop and access to a blog server can become a “journalist”, those who wish to maintain their credibility should follow the established rules of mainstream journalism. The truth and the facts won’t always necessarily be what you want them to be, and a journalist reports them regardless, with no prejudice. Many of the hyper-local online publications are using volunteers to write stories, and that has to be approached very carefully. Trust and credibility are challenging to establish, difficult to maintain, and nearly impossible to regain once broken.
As with every new venture, there is risk. Whether or not an online publication such as this can be profitable and successful are certainly open questions. As with any such undertaking, a lot of that depends on the content. Will it be something that attracts an audience? Will they find it interesting and compelling enough to come back tomorrow to see what has been done? Will advertisers find that audience valuable enough to purchase ad on the site? So many questions that are unanswered until someone takes the leap, and today, Austin has.
In some form, online journalism will be a part of the media landscape for the foreseeable future. As television converts to digital transmission, radio explores its terrestrial and satellite digital options, and newspapers, which for years have been laid out largely on computers, expand their multi-media offerings … the devices that deliver all those ones and zeros to the eventual end user will discriminate less and less about the origin of all that content. The LCD display in your laptop is exactly the same as your big-screen LCD television. That end user is changing as well. A news consumer today wants to find text, audio, and video at a time that is convenient and with as little effort as possible. And unlike when many of us were growing up … there are not three daily newspapers delivered to the door each day. Now, three thousand sources are available by opening a laptop and connecting to a wireless hub … on demand and free except for the cost of the connection. What will matter is how it’s perceived, and it’s credibility.
Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The press is the best instrument for enlightening the mind of man, and improving him as a rational, moral and social being.” What matters, then, is that people can believe what they see, hear or read, regardless of how it’s delivered. As this experiment in online journalism unfolds, it could be on the cutting edge of a new brand of reporting on the First Coast. Here’s hoping it proves worth the risk.