Like many communities in the United States, Modesto has seen its traditional news media diminish. The daily newspaper, The Modesto Bee, has eliminated more than half of its staff in the past five years. Reporters are typically assigned to multiple beats and, as a result, are so overwhelmed that they rarely have time to investigate in-depth stories. School boards, irrigation districts, and city council meetings now only get coverage when something “juicy” happens. Radio and television news organizations also have retreated, only coming to Modesto to cover crime, accidents, or the occasional scandal. Since Modesto is still mostly agrarian—its largest employer is the E&J Gallo Winery, followed by fruit and vegetable canners Seneca and Del Monte—technological replacements such as AOL’s Patch.com news services have bypassed the area, possibly under the assumption that rural folks aren’t refined or affluent enough for their services.
But are they really that unsophisticated?
A loose network of Modesto citizens now report local news and events on social networking sites, filling the gaps left by the retreating professional media. There is the Twitter account @Modesto_Crime, run by the website spotcrime.com, which reports all major crime in the city, a contrast to the official @ModestoPolice account, which reports only serious crime and official statements from the department. There is @CVRtvnews, a local husband-and-wife video production company that often posts videos of crime scenes, accidents, and newsworthy events across the region. In fact, their dispatches often are retweeted by the “professional” news organizations, including The Modesto Bee. @CA_Modesto reports a hodgepodge of local job openings, feature stories and announcements from area organizations, and community events, while @Modestoview—run by a local business owner—reports on local concerts, art shows and movies around town. @Modestofamous is a part-time resident who shares his opinions on local businesses, personalities, and events in his own life, much like a columnist would in a newspaper. There even are informal community news organizations, such as @LaLomaNeighbors, which reports on the La Loma district, the former neighborhood of Scott and Laci Peterson.
These are just a few of the dozens of other similar accounts which reflect life in Modesto.
We shouldn’t be surprised that citizens have stepped in to fill the news hole. As social construction theory predicts, individuals need to know what others are doing in order to figure out if they fit in with society. It’s a constant process that drives us to seek out opinions, compare fashions, critique actions, and so on—and it’s the reason why professional news organizations were created in the first place. Before them, news was delivered through town criers, as song lyrics, or as sermons preached from the pulpit during Sunday service. Go far enough back and news can be found on the walls of caves. News is a necessity, and now that the professional organizations are fading, these modern Twitter and Facebook reporters are filling those needs.
These new reporters aren’t just repeating rumors or giving basic details of incidents. Some of them have done original investigative reporting. For example, when California State University Stanislaus invited Sarah Palin to speak at the institution’s fiftieth anniversary celebration, a group of faculty members and students broke the initial news of her visit on Facebook by protesting her choice as speaker. When the university refused to acknowledge that Palin had been hired, a local Facebook user uncovered a classified memo that showed school officials were ordered by Palin’s marketing staff to deny any knowledge of her appearance. And when school officials then said Palin was hired by a private organization and the school officially had nothing to do with her selection, a group of students dug through university dumpsters and uncovered dozens of documents contradicting those statements. Those too were posted on Facebook.
This year, another local college—Modesto Junior College—was caught in this web of Internet reporting. Shortly after the school eliminated its communication department, a Facebook user posted links to several misogynistic songs written and performed by the school’s president, Gaither Loewenstein. Loewenstein resigned days later.
There are dozens of other examples of local social networking feeds providing “real news” that the professional organizations seemed to miss. Granted, the debate over the quality and balance of these reports can be critiqued. Some of the reports are self-serving to the messenger, while others provide no context or lack the institutional knowledge or professionalism that often defines professional news coverage. The truth is most of the Tweets and Facebook posts come nowhere near the standards established by The Modesto Bee in its heyday—though their quality has improved during the past year, as these citizen reporters work to gain credibility among their followers.
But these complaints aside, the reality seems to be that this loose network is filling the news gap, with or without the help of Patch or The Huffington Post. As The Bee and the other professional organizations continue to retreat, this loose network of citizen journalists will continue to grow out of a public necessity to stay connected with the community, and they will continue to improve their quality in order to keep followers and gain acceptance as information sources. It’s even possible that they could become the primary news source in the region, if the professional news outlets continue their decline into obsolescence.
News marches on, even in cities like Modesto, even if the major players don’t.
This piece is part of CJR’s Nov/Dec 2011 roundtable discussion of the future of news in Modesto, California, and places like it. For more on the topic, click here.