Hyperlocal versus regional news in New Haven

Education reform and how it’s playing out in city schools. A long-awaited project to build sidewalks in a high-traffic area, delayed  because of the cost. The latest on a controversial plan to sell off 25 years’ worth of parking-meter revenue for a quick infusion of $50 million.

These are a few of the stories posted in late August by the New Haven Independent, a non-profit, online-only news organization.

As part of my research, I recently decided to take a look at every story that appeared in the Independent between Sunday, Aug. 22, and Saturday, Aug. 28, and compare them to what appeared in the New Haven Register.

Click here for a detailed breakdown of New Haven
coverage in the Independent and the Register

Not that the Independent and the Register should necessarily be thought of as competitors. The Register, a for-profit paper owned by the Journal Register Co., based in Yardley, Penn., covers not just New Haven but the surrounding area as well. On any given day, the Register publishes more stories from the suburbs than from the city. Much of the Independent’s intensely local neighborhood coverage is of the sort that the Register would not likely publish.

The Register is also a much larger enterprise, even online: its website received more than 158,000 unique visitors in July, according to Compete.com, whereas the Independent, with its city-focused readership, attracted somewhat less than 49,000. (Such numbers are inherently suspect. But they provide a decent basis for comparison, if not for overall readership.) And, of course, the Register’s website isn’t its primary distribution platform. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, paid circulation of the Register’s print edition is about 71,000 on weekdays and 81,000 on Sundays.

My goal was to list every story that appeared in the Independent for a week, and to compare them to the New Haven-only stories that appeared in the Register. Compiling a list of stories from the Independent was not difficult. Finding all the New Haven stories in the Register was somewhat more of a challenge, since I did not have access to the print edition.

Because the Register’s website does not include a virtual newspaper like, say, Boston.com’s “Today’s Globe” page, I instead relied on NewsBank, a commercial database available through Northeastern, which includes every story that appears in the print edition. I then took those stories and went looking for them on the Register’s website so that I could link to them. In a few cases, a story never made it to the website, so I linked to the NewsBank version instead. You won’t be able to follow the link without a Northeastern username and password, but those stories were few and relatively unimportant.

I’ve also listed the Register’s New Haven stories alphabetically, as they appear in NewsBank. No sense in documenting what appeared on page one, since this exercise is mainly about the Independent, where such a distinction is irrelevant.

I tried to be as rigorous as possible in deciding which stories to include and which ones to leave out. Hamden is right on the New Haven line, and there are close ties between the two communities. But if the Register covered a big story in Hamden, I didn’t count it. On the other hand, I did count columns in the Register written by a New Haven restaurateur, a Catholic deacon and the police chief — as well as a few press releases — on the grounds that they connect readers with city life just as much as staff-written articles.

As I expected, I found the Independent to be focused on education reform, neighborhood news and the minutia of city politics. (Part of the Independent’s grant money is specifically for coverage of the public school system.) The Register published more regional stories with a New Haven component, more stories about Yale University and other local colleges and more stories oriented toward the business community.

There was, nevertheless, some overlap. Both organizations covered the appointment of a new city health director (Independent story here; Register story here), for instance, as well as the groundbreaking for a new public-housing project where disabled people and doctors will live (Independent story here; Register story here). Each covers local police news in considerable detail.

The Register published one story that would have fit in perfectly with the Independent’s mission: an article about lights being installed on a dark bridge connecting two neighborhoods that had been the scene of several muggings. The Register reported the story with the help of SeeClickFix, a New Haven-based start-up that uses mapping and discussion boards to connect communities, local governments and the media — something the Independent has been doing for some time.

One major difference is that the Register publishes seven days a week. The Independent posted stories Monday through Friday, but not on Sunday or the following Saturday. That’s not always the case, but the Independent, with just four full-time staff members, is pretty much a weekday-only operation. The Register has about 70 full-time newsroom employees, according to managing editor Mark Brackenbury, although that disparity vanishes when you consider how many journalists the Register has covering city-only news.

There were several stories published in the Independent that struck me as unique to its hyperlocal mission and thus not particularly well-suited to the Register:

  • A Chinese vegetable garden being kept by a Chinese couple who are living in New Haven temporarily while their son attends Yale — part of the Independent’s “Gardener of the Week” series that it has been publishing throughout the summer.
  • A decision by a subcommittee of the New Haven Board of Aldermen to put on hold a $500,000 plan to build sidewalks in a heavily trafficked area.
  • A failed middle school, now renamed Domus Academy and being run by a charter organization, which is requiring parents to get involved as a condition of their kids’ attending the school. (That said, the Register is soliciting first-person accounts from parents of children attending two turnaround schools, including Domus.)

As an online-only news site with a different sensibility from the print-oriented Register, the Independent is able to link out to other coverage when warranted.

For instance, the Register’s biggest New Haven story of the week was a report that city assessor William O’Brien may not be living in New Haven, as city residency rules require. (O’Brien denied it.) The Independent used its “Extra! Extra!” column, where it posts routine police news, lesser stories and links to off-site content, in order to link to the Register’s story, to a similar story in the weekly New Haven Advocate and to its own past coverage of O’Brien.

Overall, I thought the Independent did a better job of conveying a sense of city life and of telling stories that matter to neighborhood residents. Major stories in the Independent were longer and more detailed than those in the Register; several clocked in at more than 1,000 words, and one exceeded 2,000. By my count, the Register published only one New Haven-only story that topped 1,000 words — a very good article on a group attempting to stop housing foreclosures in the city.

On the other hand, the Register published more New Haven stories than I had expected, and its reporters are competent, experienced journalists. If I lived in New Haven, I would want to read both.

The New Haven Independent is an important experiment to see whether a non-profit news site can cover a poor, mostly minority urban community ways that for-profit news organizations either can’t or won’t.

This coming Wednesday, the Independent will celebrate its fifth anniversary and unveil a new, voluntary fundraising effort. I plan to be there.

5 thoughts on “Hyperlocal versus regional news in New Haven

  1. Four full-time writers and they don’t publish on the weekends? It’s not that hard to hold features for Saturday or Sunday, and they’re missing out on activities that occur on the weekends. And with four writers, it wouldn’t be that difficult to split the week up.

    We started out not doing much on weekends — but honestly, you can’t say you’re covering your community if you’re not out there covering the harvest festival, etc.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Jenn: If you read the Independent regularly (not saying there’s any reason you should), you’ll find that they often cover weekend events but hold off on posting them until Monday.

  2. Perhaps part of the reason the Independent can do a better job is that it picks and chooses which stories to cover, then plugs the gaps simply by linking to stories in other media, like the Register and the Advocate. (Something I’m assuming the Register doesn’t do.) If the Independent weren’t able to do that, because the stories weren’t online or there was a pay wall, how diminished do you think the site would be?

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Esther: The Independent doesn’t do as much outside linking as you might think, so it wouldn’t make that much difference.

  3. Pingback: New Haven Independent turns 5, seeks donations - Lost Remote

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