1:28 am Jul. 19, 20101
In a few weeks The New York Times will launch its long-awaited latest experiment in collaborative online journalism, The Local: East Village.
The L:EV, as it is referred to by its editors (they pronounce it "Lev"), announced itself back in February, detailing a plan to develop a new site incorporating local bloggers, neighborhood residents and student journalists to focus on the neighborhood. The journalism comes from a collaboration with New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. The local bloggers and neighborhood residents are, basically, supposed to volunteer, though a recruitment drive has been a big part of the ramp-up to launch.
But it hasn't been easy for Lev to make friends in the neighborhood.
“After helping ruin the East Village, NYU turns its attention to covering it,” read the headline on the popular East Village blog EV Grieve the day after the announcement.
“[The] East Village is officially now a hyperlocal journalism experiment at NYU,” wrote the author, whose online persona is the pen name E.V. Grieve (and whose policy of anonymity we complied with for this article). “Not content to just gobble up real estate all over the neighborhood, decapitate churches and fill the streets with obnoxious students, NYU has now teamed up with The New York Times to gentrify the EV blogosphere,” he continued.
At The Awl, Choire Sicha wrote that the site was cynical in that it seemed to be premised on the notion that the way to finance local news operations is on the back of free intern and "community contributor" labor.
(While interns who get course credit for their work on the site through N.Y.U. won't be paid, editors and advisors told Capital that the summer interns and interns working through the Times' internship program will be; and the site is currently developing a program designed to compensate community contributors.)
Members of hte Lev team, after the initial reaction, reached out to East Village bloggers.
“One enterprising student asked me if I knew how to get ahold of Ray at Ray’s Candy Store,” Grieve said. “I gave him the address of the store and suggested that he stop by.”
Another was more politic.
“I like to think of the EV Local as a way to start to make up for the things about NYU that EV residents hate, but this all depends on how well we do our job,” the N.Y.U. student involved with the project wrote to Grieve, in an email that also said the student understood why he was “cranky” and complimented the work he’d done on his blog.
"It seemed like a drive-by compliment," Grieve said.
“Hubris is the right word here,” said Bowery Boogie, in response to Grieve's original post about the site, which also served as a message board for East Village bloggers horrified at the announcement of the new site.
“Gee, I wonder if any of the arrogant little snots reporting on ‘their’ neighborhood will have to leave their cushy wood 'n’ purple NYU ‘trolleys’ and actually intermingle with the hoi polloi (NOT the ones in the bars they frequent) to report?” wrote a commenter named Lisa on Grieve’s original post.
“They need to be stopped,” wrote Jeremiah Moss of Vanishing New York, “and the EV Blog Mafia can stop them.”
THE EAST VILLAGE BLOG MAFIA'S chilly response means a few things. One: that Kim Davis has his work cut out for him.
Davis was hired as a consulting editor, a liaison to the community, a month after the announcement of the site. The listing described someone who would help recruit neighborhood “community contributors,” and who “[lives]in the East Village and [has] lived there for a minimum of three years (East River to Broadway, 14th to Houston Streets.)”
And, perhaps most importantly, the listing said: “You are not an employee of NYU, or in a consulting role for any other division of the University.”
But Davis' job has broadened to include diplomacy between existing East Village bloggers and editors and Lev. More, Davis is meant to emphasize the degree to which cooperation with Lev could possibly broaden existing bloggers' readership in the neighborhood and beyond. Davis is meant to be, according to Rich Jones, Lev's editor, “our ambassador to the community.”
This summer, Davis has been compiling lists of writers, photographers, and video artists to contribute to Lev; Jones spoke of “opening doors” for journalistic aspirants in the neighborhood, and “bringing folks to the table.”
The East Village is arguably the neighborhood-blog capital of New York, and its bloggers are a reflection of the neighborhood: various, and a little cranky. There’s Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York chronicling the openings, and, much more frequently, shutterings of East Village stores. Until May of this year, Neither More Nor Less has been providing a photographic chronicle of the East Village, focused mostly on Tompkins Square Park and the scene outside Ray’s Candy Store on Avenue A. Jill at Blah Blog Blah writes about the Avenue A noise problems. Flaming Pablum provides music news from downtown. Someone who goes by Melanie has an East Village photoblog. Until April, East Village Idiot wrote about EV news, focusing on the M.T.A. downtown. The East Village section of Neighborhoodr calls for posts from readers. GammaBlog posts street art from the East Village. East Village Eats covers neighborhood food news. Undergrads at NYU Local cover the university. The Villager has covered life downtown since 1933. The East Village Feed puts them all in one place.
Into this well-ordered society comes the Times, under full sail of press releases of Christopher Columbus proportions.
On one hand, the Times brings serious journalistic firepower to the endeavor: Mary Ann Giordano, who is the Times' point person on all of the Local sites, is a heavily credentialed local news veteran, as is site editor Rich Jones, who covered metropolitan news and sports for the Times before leaving for a Knight-Bagehot fellowship. At the same time, the cooperation, and the contributions, of local bloggers is to be an integral part of the plan for Lev. About 50 percent community-generated content is the goal. But the natives are protesting.
“To have 50 percent community contributions is a worthwhile target,” Davis told Capital. “But I don't think anyone believes we'll achieve it overnight. Certainly it means recruiting ‘citizen journalists,’ and my understanding is that these are people directly affected by news events, with something to say, who don't have ready access to traditional media except as consumers.”
But what about when community contributors have an ax to grind about N.Y.U.? (It happens!) Davis himself will cover news stories relating to N.Y.U., he said, to avoid any conflict of interest.
AND YET DAVIS WILL BE INVOLVED WITH N.Y.U., to the extent that a big part of the motivation for the program is to provide students with a setting to understand the new forms journalism is taking in cities; and he works for the program. It’s not really something that can be taught in a classroom, because journalism professors, and to a great extent, mainstream journalism organizations, haven’t yet figured it out themselves.
“The journalism school was not properly aligned with professional practice for many years,” said Jay Rosen, a professor at the N.Y.U. journalism program, media critic, and overall guru on hyperlocal and community-reporting issues who is serving as a faculty adviser for this project.
“It’s a pedagogical experience,” Davis said.
Interns who work on the site as part of their coursework will not be paid, but they will develop skills that may or not be valuable in a few years, depending on the success of projects like the Local blogs and the idea of citizen journalism. Jones believes they will be “very marketable.”
Institutional goals for N.Y.U. were always an explicit and public part of the project.
“If CUNY students and Columbia students were working on The Local,” said Rosen, “we wanted to do it too.”
But that was a “small goal.”
“The big goal was to propose a collaboration in which N.Y.U. and The New York Times would jointly produce this version of The Local for the East Village,” he said. “We came up with ideas about how it would work, they had their own ideas, it took up almost a year of negotiations—nine months for us to hammer out an agreement for how we could do this.”
And in the end they came up with a program that resembled closely both what Rosen had wanted and what the Times has done elsewhere. The Brooklyn Local, run by the CUNY Journalism School, has rougly the same community-generated content goal as Lev.
MEETING THAT GOAL OR NOT MEETING IT COULD mean a lot for the Times as it tries out new digital strategies. This experiment, while modest in budgetary terms, is big insofar as it is testing a proposition that is gaining currency in the venture-capital and advertising worlds. Craigslist may have killed classifieds, but the web in general seems to have killed display advertising—those larger, prettier ads with pictures you see interspersed among the pages of text in print editions.
The theory goes that large metropolitan news organizations must develop relationships with the local blogosphere in order to match its advertising-sales muscle with content that can attract a wide base of brick-and-mortar business. That means going local, as inexpensively as possible.
“What we are trying to do is figure out how to provide good coverage with New York Times journalistic values, actually, using the least amount of New York Times personnel,” said Mary Ann Giordano, who serves as the coordinator for the local blogs at the Times.
The Times also needs to figure out whether hyperlocal blogs, with support from advertising sales staffs, can operate on a third-payer model. Can you make a business from hyperlocal blogs with the advantages of mainstream media infrastructural support? And can mainstream media find hyperlocal revenue that will support their broader and more expensive journalistic efforts?
“This is all part of the Times’ continual effort to figure out where we’re going to be when the revolution is over,” said Giordano.
“We are embracing web world, more than just running a website,” she said. “Trying to be part of the culture, interact with our readers a lot more, and be part of a bigger picture.”
Giordano said the Brooklyn Local was careful to link to and credit other blogs that had gotten to stories before them; and that they will do the same thing in the East Village with the bloggers there. She knows that the Times, as she put it, “casts a big shadow.”
The Times experienced a shade of resistance in the Fort Greene blogosphere when its Local launched in March 2009. “We come in peace” was their motto then, and it will be their motto now.
AND YET, TO DO WHAT THEY ARE ATTEMPTING IS TO COURT several fights. Buddying up with local journalism programs means cutting labor costs, which creates a sustainable upside. It also has the advantage of recruiting the journalists from a pool that must succeed by Times standards in order to succeed in their program of study. Which means the Times is in a better position to apply its standards to its free reporting.
But staying true to the hyperlocal business model means they have to report on the neighborhoods where those institutions are located. That means entering a town-gown showdown.
Add that to the dogfight with professional journalists inside and outside the Times who see kids paying to report for the Times when they are hoping for salaries. There is also, on the other end, the resentment of neighborhoods who have watched institutions like the Times abandon coverage of what was important in their neighborhoods to chase print ad dollars elsewhere (Hello, T magazine).
"It's great to see all sorts of organizations, whether this NYU/Times blog or DNAInfo.com, reporting real, deep, good neighborhood stories that should be told," said Lockhart Steele, who turned his own local Lower East Side blog into the Curbed empire of websites.
And that feeds a suspicion that the interest in the neighborhood is passing and opportunistic, and therefore won't amount to much.
"Whatever feeling of 'negativity' people have about the idea of an East Village [Times blog] has nothing to do with N.Y.U. or the Times," Steele said. "It has to do with the fact that the East Village has some of the most passionate bloggers in the entire city. And given that great neighborhood blogging harvests the passion of the bloggers that write it, there's every reason to believe that whatever these folks put out will be crushingly dull."
One of Grieve’s early posts about the Times-N.Y.U. initiative likened it to a Whole Foods opening next to a corner deli.
The question will probably be whether the Times can create a product that will serve the neighborhood well enough for The Local to be accepted by the locals.
Damon Beres is one of five interns from the Summer Internship Class who is working on Lev. He’s writing a story about the fate of the CBGB brand, now that the club that originated it is a John Varvatos boutique.
“So far everyone I’ve talked to has been very excited about the fact that I might be covering their business,” said Beres, who has been particularly interested in local independent business in the neighborhood. As a student of N.Y.U., working in a collaboration between the school and the New York Times, the irony is not lost on him.
Still: “I don’t think N.Y.U. could please them in a million years,” he said. “It’s not really my problem as a reporter to worry about that.”
Rosen seemed to acknowledge that this wouldn’t be easy, writing a post on his blog, PressThink, shortly after the announcement explaining what the project would be and why it was so important.
“It’s going to be messy and hard,” he wrote. “Which is to say, real.”
Editor's note: Capital engages students with undergraduate journalism experience as summer reporting interns. Eliza Shapiro is an undergraduate at Columbia University. You can read biographies of all of our contributors here.
A note on this version of our story:
An earlier version of this article characterized interns at The Local: East Village as unpaid. In fact, according to editor Rich Jones, the five Times interns who have been detached to work on The Local this summer are, in fact, being paid for their efforts. The students who write for the site as part of the "Hyperlocal News" course in the fall will contribute articles as part of their academic coursework but the students who work for the site this summer are being paid.
Jones further adds that the site is working on a plan to compensate community contributors.
You can find out more about L:EV here.
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