The evolution of news: back to the future?

As a writer and journalist, I’ve seen many local publications shift their focus from comprehensive international news and adapt the “go local” motto.

It makes sense. In the age of 24-hour news channels and online communication, we’re already getting news of national and international importance from other sources.

If a local newspaper reports a national story, it can at best deliver that news 12 to 24 hours later. Many local media outlets expanded in the 1970s and 80s to offer comprehensive coverage; as a result, there’s many layers of duplication in the market for national and international news.

News organizations have also realized that blogs are gaining in popularity and credibility because they’re answering the need for local coverage of local news – told in a local voice that understand the issues and how they impact the people that live there.

Time magazine had a story in this week’s edition about “hyperlocal” Web sites – like EveryBlock and GapersBlock here in Chicago – that do exactly that: cover local happenings from a mega-local perspective.

Getting news (then and now) at a truly local level - births, deaths, major events....and even a golden wedding anniversary!

I think it’s really exciting. It’s also, in many ways, a return to what a local newspaper used to be.

I say this because for the last several months, I’ve been knee-deep in newspaper archives as I research my family history. Many of the local papers I’ve read followed the same template. They were usually around 10 pages, with only a smattering of national news on page 1. There was an opinion page and a sports page.

And the rest? Well, it was filled with local news. Every wedding, death, birth, car accident and shooting (accidental or otherwise).

One thing that struck me about many of these older newspapers: there were columns and columns of content that simply reported the comings and goings of people. (“Mr. and Mrs. M. Miller were guests at the home of Mr. John Jones.”) Initially, this struck me as (a) very odd and (b) something that would never fly today with privacy concerns.

And then it hit me: this was the ancestor of the status update! Now we don’t need a newspaper to get that news out; we can update Facebook or Twitter, and those are as searchable as newspaper archives.

What we define as news hasn’t changed a great deal, but the ways that news is delivered has undergone epic changes with the Internet and social media. In many ways, though, 21st century technology is answering a timeless question for readers: “What’s going on? And what’s happening in my neck of the woods?”

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