The New Haven Independent is almost surely the smallest news organization ever chronicled at book length. Founded in 2005 by veteran journalist Paul Bass as a nonprofit publishing exclusively online, it employs five full-time journalists to cover a city of 130,000. It writes straightforward local news stories about community meetings and crimes and government. And, according to the Independent’s own biographer, media critic Dan Kennedy, there’s no guarantee that it will survive beyond the next few years. It says a great deal about the state of journalism that we’re willing to look into such tiny corners of the industry for hope and inspiration. It says even more that such a look can prove worthwhile.
Kennedy, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a former media columnist for the late Boston Phoenix, spent nearly four years observing the Independent, interviewing reporters and readers, and analyzing everything from the site’s coverage of a murder case to its handling of online comments. His new book, The Wired City, is the result. Though the book bills itself as a study in “reimagining journalism and civic life in the post-newspaper age,” Kennedy doesn’t really spend much time on grand pronouncements or prescriptions for the future of local journalism. Rather, he delivers a thorough and sober chronicling of one “post-newspaper” news startup and its relationship to the city it covers.
The Wired City:
Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age
By Dan Kennedy
University of Massachusetts Press
192 pages, paper $22.95
While the local news startup space varies widely—from sites that are little more than a single journalist relying on reader donations to nonprofits with multi-million-dollar annual budgets—all startups are relative frail when compared with the expectations placed on them by the industry at large. When discussed in abstract terms, startups are expected to be the standard bearers of journalistic innovation. When discussed in specific terms, the field is far too diverse to summarize, with a few better-funded startups meeting these expectations, and others barely getting by.
Kennedy puts the Independent in context by calling it “one of about a half-dozen local and regional online-only news sites that are large enough and ambitious enough to have established themselves as a significant new journalistic genre.” Though Kennedy’s criteria for including organizations in this headcount are vague, his list includes most, if not all, of the startups that have gained notoriety in the larger industry, most notably Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, and the St. Louis Beacon. The Independent is relatively small compared to the likes of Texas Tribune, which employs more than 20 journalists. But the Independent earns its keep as a nonprofit by reporting on “efforts to reform New Haven’s troubled public schools; development proposals large and small; retail-level politics; traffic; and issues involving the city’s police department. . . .”
None of these issues, according to Kennedy, were being covered with any real depth or consistency by the New Haven Register or other local outlets. While Kennedy says that he sometimes finds himself “wishing for more perspective in the Independent’s stories,” he thinks that, given its limited resources, Bass has made the right decision to run the site as a breaking-news service publishing short items. Despite its small size, the Independent succeeds in covering many issues comprehensively.
Kennedy spends a good deal of time getting to know the reporters at the Independent and chronicling their daily routine. Bass, the veteran New Haven newspaper reporter who founded the Independent, is mentioned often. (The focus on Bass is very much warranted because, as Kennedy writes, “the Independent would not exist if Bass hadn’t come to New Haven.”) But Kennedy also frequently ventures outside the Independent’s newsroom to document just what kind of impact, if any, the publication is having on the community.
Kennedy’s efforts to talk to consumers of journalism are hugely important. The relationship of a newspaper or radio station to its community is generally well understood; the relationship of an online-only nonprofit to its community far less so. In the case of New Haven, at least, Kennedy makes a compelling argument that, even with its small newsroom, the Independent is able to have the kind of impact it (and its funders) are hoping for, and is an effective “force for civic improvement” in New Haven. Kennedy’s analysis stands as a rigorous proof of concept for the work of the Independent and its peers.
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