I’ll open this week’s Media Farm with a flashback. It’s the late ’90s or the mid-’00s, take your pick, and the world is seemingly becoming overrun with bloggers. These so-called bloggers (or web-loggers, as initial media coverage of said Internet phenomenon often explained) were supposed to take over more than just traditional media. It certainly felt at one point—say, circa 2004, when the rise of DIY reporters was the only story born out of the Democratic National Convention in Boston to get more coverage than a young and mesmerizing Barack Obama—like the sharpest of this freewheeling bunch were poised to rise up and replace enterprises from Siskel and Ebert to The Source, leveling newsrooms from the Associated Press to Alternative Press in the process. It was speculative chaos: Entrepreneurs and journos romanced each other like never before. To the consternation of broadsheet devotees, longtime print hacks deserted their gray ladies to shack up with sexy young start-ups with silly names.
Looking back now, while they may have succeeded in overshadowing The Source, for the most part bloggers have failed to live up to expectations (which, to be fair, were absurd and artificially inflated by network jackasses). That’s fine; depending on what you consider a blog, many independent online writers have become important fixtures in ongoing conversations. In Boston, even political adversaries can agree that the impact of Universal Hub is immense, as the site’s become a go-to destination for various interests. It’s a similar story for Barstool Sports; though trafficking in shit humor and co-ed softcore should earn any news org an asterisk in the comparative analytics column, there’s no denying the ’Stool’s pole position as an indelible influence across significant demographics.
But who else? What else? Where is all the grassroots media? Where’s the massive onslaught of blogs? Did monsters like the Boston Globe destroy the ecosystem by first luring local voices to their network and then banishing community bloggers to the equivalent of a subreddit ghetto? This is not to discount those who do put work in; from Media Nation to Blackstonian and Killer Boombox to Vanyaland, there is select relief from the dominant big players. Nevertheless, now that lofty blog ideals have been abandoned without early movement cheerleaders being called out—and in the wake of social media and video being tasked with saving the world—who the heck is going to cover the selectmen’s meeting in this town? Or the planning board in that city? How about the State House? Where’s the posse of bloggers on white stallions? They’re few and far between, that’s where they are. Because while lots of people may be willing to tweet regularly or even maintain a timely Medium or Tumblr page, nothing close to the predicted market coup has occurred. At least not in Boston. Not that I see.
Which is a natural segue into our shoutout to the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, based out of Boston University, and its newly released project about potholes in the Hub. The center does the kind of journalism that a platoon of armchair muckrakers or even ambitious individual citizens could conceivably explore, but that in practice really needs a budget and an expert hand to competently execute.
Though not Watergate or another Catholic Church scandal, “Holes in the System” is the best kind of municipal journalism, in that reporters thought enough to impugn a routine problem hiding in plain sight. As the saying posted in the offices of countless journalists goes, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” In this case, a pothole isn’t necessarily filled just because somebody—or an award-winning application like Citizens Connect, or an expert, or even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle who lives underneath that particular patch of asphalt—says so. With loopholes that allow pols to legally enrich themselves by trading influence for campaign grist and future employment prospects, reporters are more likely to net impact these days by striking with a thousand papercuts than they are by trying to unearth a single smoking gun. Also, bonus points for how NECIR highlighted the difference between reality and PR spin. Sometimes, you only have to wait a couple of hours for the fraudulent facade to fade. From the article:
Boston’s Public Works Interim Commissioner Michael Dennehy, his deputy, Michael Brohel, and a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office had just been to the street to show reporters how crews repair potholes. But about an hour and a half after they filled this one, it had caved in. The bottom was only visible with a flashlight.
Let’s hope the city learns a lesson here beyond that Boston needs to do a better job of patching streets. As Massachusetts handcuffs its economic prosperity to advanced innovation at a more prolific clip than almost any other American city besides San Francisco, we can all stand to remember that while there may countless ways to blog and share content, someone still needs to mine primary sources and fill the news hole; and while you can design a million apps that earn the praise of tech reporters and streamline infrastructure improvement, at the end of the work day, you still need somebody to pour the asphalt.
PS: DO YOU KNOW OF ANY GOOD LOCAL BLOGS THAT WE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT? C’MON, THERE HAS TO BE SOME STUFF OUT THERE THAT WE DON’T KNOW ABOUT. TWEET US A LINK @DIGBOSTON AND @MEDIAFARM.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.