The Local Story

Quite an interesting give and take between Dan Gillmor and David Lazarus on newspaper survival, weblogs, and the usual. I wrote several comments in Dan’s post, most of which I won’t repeat here. One that’s incidental to the discussion between Gillmor and Lazarus I will repeat and that has to do with covering the local news.

Dan doesn’t think local news coverage is important, as compared to national and international news. I think, in a way, this is symptomatic of where much of the failure of ‘citizen journalism’ arises, because if weblogs would be good for anything, it would be local coverage. Especially since local coverage is also the area being cut by so many publications, such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Yes, local news is covered, but typically only that relevant to St. Louis rather than Missouri as a whole; or with some major significance to a great number of people, has ghoulish interest, or ‘human appeal’: Highway 40, puppies saved, people killed, and an extraordinary number of sex scandals…oh look, another one today.

It’s the ‘quiet’ stories we’re losing in the rush to get eyeballs. The small stories, the local stories, the stories that explore more than expose; inform rather than titillate. These quiet stories are those that weblogs could capture, but webloggers, excuse me, citizen journalists, see themselves as the next Edward R. Murrow and disdain such small stuff.

We aren’t Edward R. Murrow, though. Heck, even Edward R. Murrow wasn’t Edward R. Murrow–or, at least, not the legend we’ve made out of the man. We don’t have CBS behind us, or even Fox in a pinch. We certainly don’t have the newspapers. All we have is an interest, the energy to follow the interest, at least a rudimentary understanding of written language (though its difficult to meet all of it’s requirements), and a place to put the results when we’re finished. Oh, and Google, Yahoo, and various assorted sundry aggregators to come along and slurp it up–slurping not necessarily meaning thoughtful consumption.

One local story I’m following is the Taum Sauk dam break and the events with Ameren and Nixon and Childers…oh my! There was such global coverage when the dam’s water first swept down the hill, and how quickly forgotten when people realized no one died and this was in the back woods of the Ozark mountains in Missour-ah for god’s sake (praise Jesus).

Oh, every once in a while one newspaper or another will print something: Childer’s same old accusation about Nixon (making every Republican in the state cringe with each repetition); FERC imposed fines on Ameren and kept 2/3rds for itself; that Ameren is being yelled at by yet another community group; about Blunt finding himself absorbed into a new state called The State of the Department of Natural Resources of Missouri, where he can pretend he makes all the rules and the rest of us don’t laugh at him.

For the most part, no, it seems that this story is no longer a story. Or, well, it is a story, but a quiet one and we all know that eyeballs don’t get attached to quiet stories. Ads go where the eyeballs flow, and news organizations are down to scraping ink off their shoes to make the next printing–they need the money.

I’ve been getting what news I can on the Taum Sauk cleanup from Lee over at Black River News–and I bet he gets a lot of angry looks at the local cake walk and town fair–with occasional notes from Fired Up Missouri and Columbia Tribune and its weblogs. I could probably find information from the Ironton Mountain Echo newspaper in the area, but it doesn’t have an online site. Understandable because there is no broadband internet access–hard to publish online when there is no ‘line’. Mostly I rely on the Black River News, the weblog, and its comments where we exchange rumors, and sometimes rural and city meet to sneer at each other over effluvium laden waters.

Take the newest rumor: that no work is currently going on at Johnson’s to repair the flood damage, as Ameren doesn’t want to put money into such effort while the lawsuit is pending. How odd, considering that Ameren is willing to put money into rebuilding the Taum Sauk reservoir, with its 98 million in income generation a year.

The Johnson’s Shut-Ins and Ameren web sites haven’t put up any significant news in over six months; not one update or work in progress. We know that a proposal was accepted for re-building the park, with an order to begin given in September, but nothing from the park since: not a photo, not a quip, not even some cute little kid’s drawing of a boulder, souvenir of Lesterville’s First Grade field trip to see the Important People Making Things Better.

Surely with Ameren’s current PR-challenged state, the kid and the rock, happy smiling baby fish, and muscled, mustachioed men wearing flannel as they build things are de rigeur . Nope. Nada. The reverberations from the silence are making themselves felt all the way to…well, obviously not Jefferson City.

I am writing a longer essay on the whole event and had hoped to have updated information. As delicious as rumors are, facts do make a better story. No, really. I guess I must go find facts, then.

This is when being a ‘weblogger’ hits a wall not bumped by the journalist working for an organization. I called around yesterday to get some form of an update, and possibly even permission to go in for photos of work in progress. You’d think since this is a public story and this is public land, and all the people involved have such big, public mouths I could get an update, but no.

I called the DNR ombudsman here in St. Louis, but he was out, and someone else wasn’t available, and I should call the DNR, directly. I called the director’s office at the DNR and one person answered and then switched me to another, an older lady who sounded nice, but flustered, and who asked why I was asking. I thought about saying, “Well, I was writing this here thousand dollar donation to the Republican Party, when I was reminded of the Johnson’s and how I used to love to go there when I was a tyke”, but settled for the truth, which is probably a mistake: I said I was writing a story. She then switched me to the Johnson’s Shut-Ins park office, but warned me I might not get an answer because some form of conference was happening.

What?

I did call, and found there’s a naturalist at the park, a park superintendent, and a park ranger (“press 1 for the park naturalist, press 2 for…”). Going to the top, I put in messages with the Park superintendent, who naturally did not call back (“Burningbird? WTF?”). There was a sort of updated page this morning with a reference to opening in 2008, but now it’s gone again.

I, being little ole me, did not get a call back, but if I were from say, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, then I’m sure as Bob is your uncle and Amy your aunt, I’d have gotten through to a human being somewhere. However, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who can wave the magic “Let me in or you’ll look like crap” wand, isn’t interested because the Cardinals manager got busted for drunk driving. Eyeballs flow better with booze.

I imagine I’ll find some of what I need for my story, using whatever laws govern our supposed public agencies…and my best telephoto lens. Hopefully I’ll hear new rumors over Black River News, too. When I’m done editing the story in my own charmingly amateurish way, I’ll publish it online: most likely at the new MissouriGreen site, possibly here, maybe both. It will go into Google, Yahoo, MSN, and be fed into aggregators that aren’t too proud to scarf any story, quiet or not. If enough people link to it, it might even make it into the first couple of pages of a Google search.

A quiet way to publish a quiet story that no one else wants.

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3 Responses to The Local Story

  1. Dan Gillmor says:

    Shelley, I have *never* said I don’t consider local news as important as global affairs. I haven’t said it because I don’t believe it.

  2. Shelley says:

    Actually, you did write in your comments that you were more concerned about international stories than the local. Perhaps I phrased my comment incorrectly. Or misunderstood yours.

  3. Dan Gillmor says:

    You did misunderstand. I believe there will be more of a business model (whether for-profit or non-profit) to support local news than there will be to support international news (at least in the way we’ve seen it done in recent decades). I’m more concerned about losing the international because I don’t quite see who’ll do it.