An recent item in the citizen journalism outlet The Rapidian offers a glimpse of the local media future. The article notes the debut this month of a news bureau dedicated to environmental news. It shows the further growth of alternative niche media outlets that are a significant presence in the local media landscape.
This is interesting on several levels. For one, it shows that even as Mlive.com adapts and morphs from a collection of local newspapers on actual paper to a digital hub, it faces competition. The same is true for local television stations highlighting hyper-local areas on their web sites and apps, such as WZZM TV13's "My Town" effort. There was a time when the Grand Rapids Press and Muskegon Chronicle had reporters dedicated to the environment beat. Now they still cover environmental issues--there is even an 'environment' category on the MLive.com mobile app--but they don't cover it as often.
The reason mainstream media don't cover things like the environment with regularity is for economic reasons. Conventional media are market-driven. They are caught in a cycle of losing readers and viewers, which leads to lost ad revenue, which lead to less staff to cover everything. They are trying to recapture that by getting more local, but this puts them in a new competitive ballpark.
Citizen journalism projects are content-driven. They operate with grants, underwriters and donations. Support may come in the form of ads eventually. But for now they are not averse to content that yields smaller audience. In fact, that is their purpose, as evidenced by the series of news bureaus launching focused at the neighborhood or topical level. Readers can subscribe via RSS feed to the specific neighborhood or topic of interest to them in the community.
Another interesting aspect of all of this is the source of the news. The Rapidian seeks "journalists and aspiring journalists" for these bureaus. Some of them will be journalism students in internships. Others may be laid off journalists doing freelance work. But nonprofit organizations will also be providing news for these bureaus. As an example, the Creston Neighborhood Association will be a primary source of neighborhood news for that bureau. The West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) appears to be running the environment news bureau.
Some people might wonder about the credibility and quality of news being provided by young or even untrained journalists. But keep in mind several things. First, MLive.com is downsizing and rehiring a leaner, younger staff too. Who is to say The Rapidian site won't be equally credible? In fact, in the case of the environmental news bureau, WMEAC's Executive Director Rachel Hood has a background in public relations, and their Communications Director Dan Schoonmaker is a former journalist and public relations professional (see their staff directory bios).
Secondly, the news has always been largely supplied indirectly from businesses, nonprofits, government spokespeople and other sources. It's been called "information subsidy." The way The Rapidian is doing it is more transparent. That relates to the final point, that the public will have to be thoughtful and critical of all information they consume, even as they are now with local and national "mainstream" news. I would also hope that WMEAC will be magnanimous and offer news from other environmentally focused nonprofit organizations, and that they are fair and even-handed vs. activist if there is an environmental story with multiple points of view.
It's also important to note that what The Rapidian is doing will supplement mainstream news such as MLive.com and other local print and broadcast outlets. The advantage of The Rapidian for PR professionals is a greater chance of getting news publicized than in the busy conventional media outlets. It's also possible to reach a smaller niche audience of people most interested in your subject. However, smart PR pros will also keep in mind the need to reach people who are not currently interested or engaged, and the best way to reach them is through a greater mass distribution that conventional mainstream media will offer.
In short, there will be more outlets for public relations professionals to consider, and more news for the public to consume.