01 December 2011

Starting A Free Local Weekly with Google.

It's surprising, when you think about the technological capabilities of the internet, and how little that's changed the course of media.  All of the big dinosaurs put on their internet pants and try to blend in while there's an entire species of newly evolved creatures who see life in an entirely different context, with the free flow of information that is now available.

Every city and town across the country has a "Free Local Weekly" and I'm here to propose a peaceful takeover of that market, with Google.  It's actually really easy and you and a few of your friends can do it, wherever you are, in whichever hometown buffet you're from.

Craigslist has already kind of taken over the role of postings, when it comes to looking for jobs, or searching for tag sales and stuff like that, which already eliminates the usefulness for an entire back half of the entire paper.  What's left?  The one or two articles in the front, the photos, the random columns which you have come to appreciate, and a few other minor details.

The following is a list of key features which make a Free Local Weekly complete in the eyes of the public.  Maybe some things are missing but these are the most important.

Supporting The Project Financially
Ok, let's say you also need to make a living somehow, but you're dedicated to getting this paper together and making it into something that is real will require an enormous amount of time.

You can do this on your own spare time, or you can try to make earnings doing it by gaining the support of local businesses.  If you're going to try to get businesses to support you, first you have to ensure them of a few minor things:

  • Your methods will be better for their business than your town's free local weekly
  • You can design their ads for them to make them look fresh
  • and you're willing to do this for much less than anybody else. 
You also need to prove that you have circulation, and in order to do that, you also must circumvent the existing media institutions, because they're not going to help you out.

Other Models For Financial Stability

If you can't get the institutions around you to carry your endeavor with their financial support (previously referred to as "Advertisements"), try to get your local archival institution (like a Historical Society or Museum) to support the cause, by allowing you to archive the work of businesses around your area from the perspective of an anthropological documentary perspective.  Now you're not really creating advertisements, but you're still giving businesses the exposure that they want, and you're informing the public in an unbiased way about what those businesses do.  Here's an example:

Ok, not the best reporting ever, but you're not going to see this crap anywhere else!

A few elements of Journalistic Obligation:

1.  You have an obligation not to misinform people to enflame political sentiments.
2.  If you are correctly informing people, they have a right to become incensed by your writings but you take the risk of facing backlash and/or being faced with conflicting misinformation.
3.  If it's understood that your work is partial fiction (such as the Onion, for example), there is way more that you can get away with, so by adding theatrical or fictional information to a weekly, it makes it harder for people to distinguish what's true about your news as a whole.

The free local weekly is not going to be excited about your arrival, so don't expect or even try to make it into their articles as something new or exciting to look forward to.  When I first started without the use of Blogger back in 2005, it turns out that my postings were popular in the office of my town's free local weekly and they asked me to be a part of their weekly meetings, which were full of inside information and I enjoyed fully.  I tried working out a deal with the editor to retain the sovereignty of my own publication, stating that I would give them access to print my articles in their paper for the nice price of something like $50 an article.  They bought one:  a piece I did about a Yale student from Australia named Ronald Kramer who was also an extremely talented 3D graffiti writer who went by an alias.  That was it, though, because after that, they pretty much switched editors and it became impossible to retain the same warm relationship with the people who replaced the editor who originally welcomed me.  His name was Mark Oppenheimer, and now constructs the New Haven Review, which is something like a literary journal.  His articles have also been published in the NY Times.

Reforming Community Events Bulletins
If you've ever seen an events calendar for a free local weekly, you know that they all look something like this.  It's not bad, because it does give you a running list of everything going on.  But someone has to enter that data, and people go to the organization with their information to share on this calendar, which does not appear, at least in this example, within the format of a monthly cal, which most people are used to seeing when they're planning things.  What would work better is if institutions around the city were granted access to a shared events calendar that they could input their ideas into directly, so that it created the comprehensive list of music, art, stage, and leisure events which normally take place so that people can plan their weekends and weeknights accordingly.

So I discovered a way to grant permissions to people so that they can enter in calendar events, which I built a tutorial for [here].  Then I started adding permissions letters to the people who were capable of adding events, which included bands and venue organizers, including an email which explained the situation, and the location of the link.  The page looks like [this].

Customizing Google Products
I also started building more customized maps and came up with a running list of those for various purposes, such as Outdoor Basketball Courts, which is a weird one.  Skate spots, which is cool.  Somebody else created one which had every local farm in the area, and I posted that one too.

Granting Editorial Access Permissions
Customizing google maps is easy and it's not done often enough.  What makes people authorities on their local areas are the amount of knowledge and friendships with those across their region, and often, at least in my area's case, you don't need to work for the free local weekly to have those characteristics.  In fact, many of the most knowledgeable people in many areas don't want to work for institutions like the Advocate because they don't want to be told what to write, or face censorship for the issues that matter the most.  There is also too much editorial control, most people think, and the writership is exclusive because the staff can only be a certain size.

The trick really then becomes establishing something that has so much brand identity that it looks like it ought to be a sports team.  Two things establish the identity of an areas iconography that cannot really be claimed by any individual as the rightful owner.  First, architectural landmarks.  Secondly, trainline logos or the name of your region itself.  Thirdly, all of the kitchy catch-phrases and sayings that have evolved which are exclusive to that area.  Your free local weekly has no idea where to find that stuff, and that's evident because they've managed to overlook all of it in favor of creating a national identity, which is why regardless of whoever the owner is, from here to San Francisco the free local weekly has many of the same characteristics.  It's made of newsprint.  There are band listings.  Cool people write for them.  There are articles.  But they don't have the same ability to revert into this new kind of structure which TownOfNewHaven.Org is built on, which I'm asking others to base their own DIY local NewsMedia sites after.

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