The idea for NYU Local, the newest addition to New York University’s list of publications, was born last year when founder and editor Cody Brown, 20, came up with the idea for a survey to be conducted by the Foundations of Journalism class. The survey question asked other NYU students: “Would you trade your right to vote for an iPod Touch?”
The survey was then written up by fellow NYU student and journalist Lily Quateman who posted it online and watched it quickly gain widespread attention throughout the blogosphere.
“I came up with the survey, Lily wrote the story, and two hours later it was on the Drudge Report,” says Brown as we sit in what he calls “the second best seat” at Think Coffee.
Upon meeting him for the first time I notice his unkempt blonde hair, and piercing blue eyes.
We relate on many levels. We are both juniors at NYU, we love journalism, and we embrace new media. Even the insanity of being written about all over the Internet is something we can laugh about.
“It was absurd, the survey story blew up around Politico, Fox, and CNN,” he tells me. “The results were totally inconsequential, but the way that the news spread was really empowering.
Watching how fast the Internet moved was the inspiration for NYU Local, a blog magazine of sorts that mixes factual reporting, video, photos and opinion.
“I saw that it was a classic case of pack reporting, how easy it is to attach yourself,” Brown adds. “Sure, they would each format their stories differently, but they ultimately attacked the same angle.”
I could relate. The last time I wrote about new media and the journalism school at NYU, the reactions were loud and opinionated — some positive, some negative. And bloggers, just as professional journalists have done for years, kept pack reporting the same ideas over and over.
It certainly wasn’t the first time that I had experienced this sort of viral phenomenon either. Ever since I began blogging for Mashable I’ve noticed what I like to call “blog leeches.” These are the people and bots who subscribe to a certain online publication and then either automatically feed it out through their own sites to get free views from content that they did not create, or re-blog the content with a tiny bit of spin or summary.
A few months after the survey incident, NYU Local was launched with funding by the Reynold’s Program in Social Entrepreneurship and under the supervision of NYU journalism department head Brooke Kroeger and professor Adam Penenberg. Brown designed a WordPress platform for the site, hired writers and editors (including Quateman), and said goodbye to the world of print.
College Newspapers Are Dying Too
Just as I mentioned in my last Mediashift post, journalism schools need to teach new media because print is dying.
To be at the forefront of this change, NYU Local has latched onto the unique nature of this untraditional metropolitan campus and given it a beat, a new edginess that the older school paper, Washington Square News, has not been able to do.
“NYU Local was started to try to stop this pattern of disunity on campus,” explains Brown.
These days, not only do college students feel the need to report and receive their stories quicker, they’re tired of bored, bland writing. The attitude on the web versus on print is very different. Everyone knows that you can “get away” with more on the web. Most college newspapers have advisors and editors working over the writers’ shoulders, making sure they don’t write anything too brash that will upset the dean of the school. But on the web, writers are posting straight from laptops in their dorm rooms or from iPhones as they stroll down the street.
According to Brown, there is just no way that print can compete. He said the New York Times can no longer claim to contain “all the news that’s fit to print” with a straight face because that mantra isn’t true anymore. They are not as quick as the blogs in covering breaking news nor do they have constant news reports coming in from amateur journalists.
Trash the Term ‘Citizen Journalism’
“The idea of citizen journalism is a massive misnomer,” says Brown. “Everyone is a citizen and anyone can be a reporter. The term is patronizing.”
NYU Local hopes to let anyone and everyone contribute to the site and use it as a crowd-sourcing mechanism to allow naturally good and popular writers to rise to the top. The idea would be to remove the distinction of who is a professional and who is a citizen and let everyone contribute in the same way, using their real names and eventually building their own reputations.
NYU Local emphasizes the same motto that much of Web 2.0 and social media has been repeating for the last couple of years: a conversational approach. Brown hopes to open registration to everyone in the community and let them comment on the site, submit news tips, and even write their own articles.
This new-age platform is entirely inspired by “Rashomon,” the Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa about the deconstruction of the singular perspective. Not only does NYU Local not claim to be the final word on any story, but they encourage users to generate every angle they can.
Say Goodbye to Objectivity
“Most people who want to be objective tend to disguise their opinions,” Quateman says. As we speak over the phone, her voice sounds calm and collected. “Being objective treats readers like idiots and makes them guess.” That said, Quateman added that she didn’t want NYU Local to be completely one-sided. She noticed that the politics section was very liberal and had high hopes of finding “writers who like Sarah Palin.” But as for reporting in general, she thinks it should stop trying to be objective.
Quateman, who is just shy of her 20th birthday, actually dropped out of the journalism major when she discovered that NYU journalism students were required to double major. Instead, she transferred to the Gallatin School of Individualized Study and created her own major in journalism and new media.
In fact, of the three editors that I interviewed, none are journalism majors.
Ned Resnikoff, the editor of the “National” section, is a philosophy major who loves to write about politics. He joined NYU Local after being underwhelmed by the Washington Square News. He said the paper’s politics section was frustrating to read with its lecturing tone and frequent mishandling of the facts.
“The Washington Square News recently wrote that ‘this election would be easier if McCain and Obama announced who they wanted in their cabinets.’ And I’m like, yeah — except that it’s illegal,” Resnikoff explains.
He decided to join NYU Local because he felt that he needed a better medium for his “niche of pugnacious, political commentary.”
Since leaving WSN, Resnikoff has written various scathing attacks against their political writers, the latest being one in which he takes them to task for claiming that Gov. Sarah Palin represents the death of sexism in politics — and for using poor metaphors.
“Sarah Palin has taken us across the Rubicon, and there’s no going back,” wrote Ann Friedman in WSN.
Resnikoff replied with: “Because Palin’s … Caesar? And Rome is, what, sexism? And the Rubicon is a glass ceiling. Made out of water. Or something.”
Resnikoff, who is highly opinionated and wildly entertaining on NYU Local, began blogging about politics when he interned at Talking Points Memo.
“The greatest advantage [of blogging] is that we don’t come out once a week or even once a day,” he says. “We continually update all day.”
Resnikoff recalls walking by CNN headquarters and seeing news about John McCain’s “suspension” and quickly posting the story online five minutes later. “You just can’t do that in print,” he tells me.
Stealing the Spotlight From WSN
NYU Local, which launched just a mere two months ago, now averages thousands of unique views a month and is already beating Washington Square News in page views on Alexa. WSN is the school’s main campus paper that has been around for 36 years.
WSN has had a web edition of their paper for a few years now, but re-designed their look over the summer, which actually looks eerily similar to NYU Local’s template. But WSN Editor-in-Chief, Adam Playford, who has been working at the paper since he arrived at NYU, is not too focused on the web.
“For me personally, I don’t care how you read the Washington Square News, I just care that you read us,” says Playford. “I don’t care if you read online, pick up the paper, or pay someone to read us to you.”
Playford, who isn’t a journalism major either, but rather studying journalism at Gallatin, claims to read NYU Local frequently but not pay attention to their page views. He is not even sure whether the new site is a competitor.
“When [NYU Local] first launched, they launched as a campus newspaper online, but then when they relaunched they launched as a blog,” he says. “I really don’t know if their aim is to compete with us. But if that is their aim, then I think competition is healthy.” Playford says that for most newspapers, competition makes publications stronger, but he does not spend time thinking about NYU Local’s strategy nor has he looked at their numbers.
Although WSN and NYU Local may look similar online, the two publications function differently. Where NYU Local publishes spontaneously throughout the day, WSN posts one time at night.
According to Playford, this is a result of most of the staff spending their day in class. “It’s complicated to have a daytime web-first mentality because you want to make sure articles are done right, written engagingly, subtly edited,” he explains.
While Playford mentioned that his staff will post directly online if the content will lose value otherwise (as in the case of the election), he says that WSN will continue to be a print newspaper.
“Our business model would not particularly accommodate becoming an online-only paper,” he says. “The reason for that, which is very simple and true just about for any paper, is that our print edition is making more money than the online edition.”
Playford claims that for WSN to continue, it needs the revenue from the print edition to fuel fifty paid editorial staffers, another twenty paid business staffers, and various unpaid writers and photographers. This year the paper was able to fly a reporter to the Democratic National Convention. “We wouldn’t be able to fund that kind of operation if we were just online,” says Playford, adding that “this is not to say that we won’t be online-only some day.”
Another key difference between the two publications is that WSN does not take the “objectivity is null” approach. Playford clearly believes that the web allows for more multimedia, like video, but that WSN won’t change the way it reports in different mediums because they pride themselves in providing reporting that is objective, complete, and well-researched.
The Change Journalism Needs
NYU Local hopes to end objectivity and disunity and bring together people of all backgrounds, whether professional or amateur to report together and create new form of communication.
For the editors, this is still only the beginning.
They hope to create a conversational platform that allows everyone inside it to join, contribute, and influence what it calls news. Their goal is to leave WordPress and to invent a platform that makes breaking, sorting, and reviewing news as simple as using Facebook.
So what’s their challenge?
All three editors agree that it will be about identity, trying to find out who and what they are. They aren’t Gawker and they aren’t the New York Times. With a staff of 20 writers, they’re not a puny blog either.
The other challenging part of NYU Local won’t be coding the new platform, but instead creating a user interface that transforms the thousands of ways users could capture their beat into something simple, aesthetically pleasing, and in line with the publication’s values.
In Brown’s eyes, they are a news brand. What makes them innovative is that they cover their beat from a thousand different perspectives, elevate online discussion through accountability, and get the majority of their content for free. NYU Local wants to define the massive space in between both tiers of media (blogs and traditional newspapers), fusing the best parts of each.
As Brown puts it: “It’s time to start rejecting the tribe-like closed door behavior of
most major media and imagine a news organization that evolves into a
Alana Taylor is a junior at New York University, double-majoring in journalism and history with a strong interest in film, entertainment, new media and technology. She currently manages her own blog, and works part-time for both Classic Media Inc. — a production company/distributor of family programming — and Mashable, the world’s most popular social networking blog.