Lessons From Time, Inc.’s Assignment Detroit for Hyperlocal Operators

Buy a house in the “inner city”. Drop in a reporter to live for a year. Sounds like a recipe for a reality show.

But this is the script that Time, Inc. used to launch its Assignment Detroit project nearly a year ago. And by the accounts of Detroit participants at Journalism That Matters: “Create or Die” in Detroit this June 3-6, 2010, Time’s project has been sorely lacking in representing the reality they live every day.

The community’s anger started with the initial cover of Time, Inc.’s magazine that portrayed a city abandoned. For those who continue to live and work in Detroit, the cover is a symbol of the approach by Time, Inc. that denies the passion and resurgence happening all across Detroit.

A palpable tension filled the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History as JTM participants listened to Karen Dybis, a blogger for the Time, Inc. project, describe her role in the project (Video). She outlined the goals and failures of the project in a frank appraisal.
So what can we learn from Time, Inc.’s example?
Communities are complex, rich environments. A house doesn’t buy you access.
Embedded journalists aren’t of the community. They parachute in and out with no real investment in the outcome of their works.

Lessons From Time, Inc.’s Assignment Detroit for Hyperlocal Operators

The Media Deserts Project, part of the Media Deserts/News Oasis Project

1. What do you propose to do?

We’re using GIS tools to create a “climate” map that tracks changes in the reach and depth of community news.

2. Is anyone doing something like this now and how is your project different?

Papercuts shows pinpoints of newspapers that have closed. We are creating a “media desert” map with reach data for existing media that shows where people lack access to news.

3. Describe the network with which you intend to build or work.

We’re using open geographic information systems software. We will overlay existing daily and weekly newspaper circulation data, demographic and community data through ESRI and a network analysis of hyperlocal online news providers. We also will use Ushahidi software to build a layer of crowdsourced ethnographic data.

4. Why will it work?

More than 120 newspapers have ceased operation in the United States since 2008. The Pew Center, New America Foundation and the FCC report disturbing effects of newspaper changes, broadband access and other media access issues. Across every state of the nation, community residents are experiencing growing voids in local news coverage. Just as the USDA food desert map has galvanized community conversation and action around remedies, we believe visualization of community media systems will help illuminate where news is lacking. Our map will help monitor the system over time and focus attention and resources where they are most needed.

5. Who is working on it?

Dr. Michelle Ferrier is an associate professor in journalism and online community development at Elon University who is the principal investigator for the project which is being developed in conjunction with Journalism That Matters, an international collaboration of journalists, educators, hyperlocal operators, broadcasters and news producers. Ferrier is also part of a larger collaboration of university researchers examining the changing media system. She is working with Dr. Ryan Kirk, an assistant professor in environmental sciences at Elon University who is an expert in GIS systems. Journalism That Matters is providing intervention-related consulting to communities identified as media deserts.

6. What part of the project have you already built?

We are currently prototyping a state version of the mapping system using daily and community newspapers. The prototype will allow us to test our metrics for measuring and defining “media deserts.” We have also created partnerships with several national media policy organizations that are interested in seeing such a map become reality. We are currently installing the Ushahidi software and creating a system for capturing stories of media deserts. Through Journalism That Matters, we are testing interventions in one topical media desert in Seattle. We have identified two other communities in which to host conversations around interventions.

7. How would you sustain the project after the funding expires?

We are building collaborative research partnerships with other higher education institutions and policy foundations. We feel these organizations will support the mapping system and research website once the demonstration project is completed. In addition, we plan to provide consulting services, ethnographic research and specialized reporting to communities with media deserts.

The Media Deserts Project, part of the Media Deserts/News Oasis Project