May 13, 2014

EveryBlock’s recent resurrection raises hopes that digital media efforts can help stoke interest in hyperlocal news. Focusing tightly on Chicago neighborhoods, EveryBlock connects users to information about crime, civic developments and calendar events – down to the block level – and brings neighbors together to talk with each other virtually.

By narrowing its audience, EveryBlock provides an example of  journalistic opportunities that employ the concept of “place.” More refined than circulation area or broadcast territory or even “neighborhood,” place – in this context – refers to the physical space in which news happens, where hubs of heightened engagement with local audiences can be created.

Now that powerful mobile devices are ubiquitous, journalists could – and arguably should – be taking advantage of technologies that tailor interactive content to particular audiences in local settings. Such experimentation by news outlets, though, remain rare.

When your community hosts a popular annual festival, your news organization probably wouldn’t hesitate to devote significant resources to produce news about it. At a minimum, that could be a schedule of events or photographs of participants or an accounting of how many people attended.

Locative journalism, or place-based news, encompasses traditional coverage features like event calendars and pictures, but uses mobile technologies to allow exciting new reporting options to emerge.

For example, if the GPS hardware of a mobile phone recognizes that a viewer is on the festival grounds, the calendar of events could appear on his or her screen through a customized app. With real-time mapping, the app can create navigational, organizational and socializing tools.

The snapshots and short videos produced by the festival crowd circulating through social media channels could augment the professional photographs and video taken by news staff.

Broad coverage of an event can supplement and provide context to the place-based content that allow each spot, each distinct place, to create its own identity and social history.

Information about the grandstand area, for example, might include the times and dates of performances, but an app also could give audiences access to video clips and reviews of the performers. Past stories about the performers could be a part of the content mix, along with any related news stories that might contribute to immediate conversations, such as concerns about the festival’s environmental impact, ticket prices and traffic.

Place-based journalism could integrate various innovative forms of embodied news, or information that both informs and responds to your movements within the environment. Yet relatively few organizations, beyond EveryBlock and creators of a few isolated projects, have been exploring the intriguing potential of locative news. Why?

As a starting point, place-based journalism had been mostly irrelevant before smartphones. Media companies had few efficient ways to deliver customized information to people in particular locations.

But with the decline of traditional ways of distributing news – such as the daily newspaper’s heavy thud against a front door – other opportunities for audience engagement are emerging.

One of those ripening ideas is the tailoring of content to community gathering places, where news often occurs and large audiences tend to congregate. These locations are like communal connective tissue, binding people in deep and meaningful ways that are not necessarily understood, articulated or appreciated.

This focus on place is not a call for more chicken-dinner news, or information mechanically and mindlessly sliced and aggregated by GPS coordinate.

Place-based news instead integrates traditional journalism with the natural relationships audience members have to each other by sharing space and experiences. Together in one location, audiences have common ground – literally and figuratively – on which to generate, share and respond to ideas.

Technology is challenging traditional understanding of local news and information by giving us fresh ways to think about what “local” can mean. Filtered neighborhood news is one way; place-based news is another.

Multimedia artists, documentary filmmakers and scholars have been experimenting with nonfiction storytelling tied to specific spaces for more than a decade. Interactive narratives about local communities, such as HighRise, history as illustrated by Murder at Harvard, and musical backstory as presented by City Sonic are among the notable examples.

Though fewer in number, mainstream journalism’s efforts also have capitalized on place and mobile technologies. In 2009, for example, the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle created Picture the Impossible in collaboration with the Lab for Social Computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Through a mobile game, audience members in Rochester learned about local news and the issues of the community by participating in a variety of interactive activities, including citywide scavenger hunts prompted by clues in the printed newspaper. The project team monitored user engagement and were pleased with the responses: nearly 2,500 people actively participated in the mobile game, 6,500 comments were posted in the related online forums, and $17,000 in funds were raised for local charities.

But then the mobile game ended, and few news organizations have taken on such ambitious experiments since. Cost is a major factor.

Mobile apps generally take a lot of effort and resources to build. A novel prototype could easily cost $20,000, and there is no solid business model circulating right now that could cover such expenses.

Some experimenters have been exploring durable digital models, like those that could be used and reused, as a way to test the potential of journalistic mobile applications as locative news-delivery systems.

An early example of such paradigm-changing prototypes was LocaNews, an experiment intended to simulate the productive capacity of a typical Norwegian newspaper, only focused upon the creation of location-based digital content delivered through mobile devices.

Lars Nyre, Solveig Bjørnestad and Bjørnar Tessem of the University of Bergen and Kjetil Vaage Øie of Volda University College set up shop in Voss, Norway, during the annual Extreme Sports Festival in 2009. With a staff of 13, including five journalists working full time, they spent a week running a prototype news organization in the area using a responsive locative app tailoring information by both users’ locations and interests. The results were fascinating but not definitive enough to warrant the launch of a permanent locative operation.

Yet journalists cannot afford to wait around until someone else magically unlocks this location-based potential. Much of the mobile ecosystem remains open right now for low-barrier exploration. The technology exists and is readily available. Journalists, in short, have a window to claim this locative territory.

A variety of third-party platforms – such as Aurasma, Layar, and 7Scenes – are either free or have trial periods or cheap entry options. Whether by creating new programs, or using established systems, more place-related experimentation and examination needs to happen in the news business.

Media forms regularly keep emerging, particularly through mobile technologies. Entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes are exploring these nascent systems in all sorts of industries, and everyone, it seems, is becoming an information provider.

If journalists aren’t aggressively taking some of those same risks and chances, if journalists aren’t envisioning and making the new forms of journalism, then who will?

Brett Oppegaard is an assistant professor of communication at Washington State University-Vancouver and will be joining the University of Hawaii at Manoa faculty in the fall. His research into mobile place-oriented media has won him the George and Helen Hartzog Award and the John Wesley Powell Prize. He can be reached via Twitter: @brettoppegaard.

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