Hyperlocal media pioneering when the pioneers leave

[Note: The comments on this post include some important links and comments from ‘players’ in this issue. Please read them all.]

[Note #2: Newscoma does everyone a favor and later puts some organization to the conversation that has jumped from blog-to-blog, and comments posted all over the place.]

The first “traditional media” in Nashville to dive into the deep end of this pool called “citizen’s media,” “hyperlocal media,” “blogging,” etc., was — as I’ve often mentioned, WKRN-TV — especially its blogging aggregator website, Nashville is Talking.

With the loss of the consultant and executive who together conceived and championed it and the departure of the voice that developed its personality, Nashville is Talking seems to be stumbling its way into the future. While it has been ably maintained for the past few weeks by local blogger Katherine Coble, there has been some indication that a rudder is missing, so there is no indication of the direction where the captain of this ship wants it to head.

Yesterday, this message appeared on the site, which, for those who need it to be translated from corporate-speak into English, means, “The management of this station would like to announce, we have no idea what the heck is going on here.”) Here’s the statement, before translation:

“Nashville Is Talking has the distinction of being one of a kind… and a first of sorts. A few weeks ago, Nashville Is Talking lost a voice who helped cultivate a vibrant community of bloggers. Like any innovation, change presents an opportunity to assess and evaluate. During the last couple of weeks, we have talked about the value of this community and how to continue its progression. Working on “what’s next” is a process, not an event, and we have been looking at a number of options.

I appreciate the many folks who have stepped in to keep things going in the meantime. We are close to finalizing a working solution that will take NIT to a next step. We like the idea of helping the community grow by deploying innovative tools that expand the ability to express ideas and share experience.

Gwen Kinsey,
WKRN General Manager

That message was, apparently, in response to the comment thread that followed a message the other day that the practice of paying guest weekend bloggers $100 is being dropped. Actually, that’s not what was being announced, but they asked for volunteers who would not be paid. (Note to Gwen Kinsey: You’re beginning to understand, I trust, what the ROI on that $100 was.)

I’ve met many, many people through the community that Nashville is Talking helped to foster, however, I feel a little like Jackson Miller, who writes, “It is either time to become something new or to continue to whither away.”

Today, responding to the demise of another early “hyperlocal” citizen’s media experiment, BackFence, Kent Newsome makes the point that one would be wrong to interpret the “failure” (whatever the measure may mean) of any such venture as the failure of the “citizen media movement.”I could not agree more.

I have been doing this a long time, but I have no idea where all of this is heading. Indeed, I’ve never been comfortable with the whole idea of “citizen’s media” as, well, this is just me talking. And despite my appearance in the first — and still definitive — book written on the topic, We the Media, by Dan Gillmor, one of the founders of BackFence (Later: correction: Dan started Bayosphere, that was later acquired by BackFence. Sorry for my fuzzy memory.) (he left a couple of years ago), I’ve never thought of myself as a citizen’s anything. I just am.

Today, I spent an hour talking with the editor and publisher of a very large business-to-business publication who asked me to look at a redesign of their website. (I have a blood-oath not to say what it is until it is launched.) I was amazed to see a website that is, perhaps, one of the most enlightened displays of participatory media I’ve yet seen. It’s not the technology on the site — in fact, it’s not that Web 2.0-looking — but the site is all about serving as the hub for the industry it serves. And it plays that hub role by embracing every voice it can find in that industry. It is a website that embodies what Dave Winer calls, somewhat in jest, Web 3.0: a traditional media news site where, in Dave’s words, “Professional media fully embrace new media, no longer seeing it as a threat to their continued employment. Seeing amateur public writing, the former audience who is no longer silent, as sources who can get attention for their ideas without going through an intermediary.” In a few weeks, I look forward to discussing this re-designed news website and displaying what I mean. (Note: I had nothing to do with its development. I’m just a reviewer.)

When I see major media companies “getting it” in such a dramatic way, I can’t help but feel that, while certain companies may fail in their efforts, a movement is marching forward.

Frankly, WKRN probably “failed” when they perceived “Nashville is Talking” as something to relegate into a separate brand, rather than making it a center-focus of the front page of WKRN.com.

Again, I don’t know where all of this is heading. Is it going to be hyperlocal aggregators, like the Nashville page of Outside.in, that will find a big following? Or perhaps the blogger-posse approach of the Metro Blogger folks (Later: or Music City Bloggers). Or maybe folks like sphere will help traditional media companies pull in reader voices.

However, the one thing the WKRN folks did that no one else has done — at least in Nashville — is to reach out to bloggers off-line. The “community” of bloggers in Nashville became a true community because of several meetups that WKRN helped to sponsor. That community will survive without WKRN and, frankly, that’s what is important. However, I appreciate their role in getting the ball started.

I doubt, however, they’ll be the media entity that reaps the reward of their pioneering efforts. At least, they won’t if they waste much more time believing “what’s next” is going to present itself as the result of some process.

Later: Newscoma is volunteering at NiT this weekend and has a good roundup of links on this topic. For the no BS, cut-to-the-chase POV, read Sarcastro’s take.