Tube City, McKeesport and the Future of Hyperlocalism

Back in 2003 and 2004, when I started Pittsblog, I read Jason Togyer's Tube City Almanac all the time, partly because I didn't know anything about McKeesport (the subject of the Almanac) but mostly because Jason was and is a great and passionate writer, and he was writing with verve in something that feels like a blog. The Burghosphere was a small place back then, and I needed models. Several years on, the Burgosphere has exploded, blogs have sort of taken over my life, and I drop in on Tube City all too infrequently. So it was via Chris Potter at City Paper that I learned that Jason is offering drips and drabs of cash to writers willing to help out at TCA.

Chris spins this as a case study of the future of hyperlocal journalism. "Hyperlocal" is a buzzword of the moment, but plain old local coverage is something that's disappearing from the mainstream media; the economics of daily papers and local TV just don't offer returns on investment in folks who sit through School Board meetings. That means that all too often hyperlocal "journalists" are blogging volunteers with an extra hour or two here and there, or an axe to grind, or both.

Has Jason had any takers? According to Chris, no. Chris speculates: "I'm just guessing here, but perhaps part of the reason is that bloggers are just as parochial as the MSM when it comes to places outside city limits. It's the curse of the hyperlocal: Sites like the Almanac, or Blog-Lebo (where, incidentally, local blogger Michael Madison has called it quits) just don't draw much attention outside the community they serve." (Note the clever self-promotion there? Check out a blog where I used to post! Blog-Lebo hasn't got away.)

That's a glass half-full explanation, but I think that the glass is half-empty. I can't speak for Jason, of course, but there was a good reason that Blog-Lebo -- the unofficial blog of Pittsburgh's least favorite suburb, Mt. Lebanon -- didn't and doesn't draw much attention outside of Mt. Lebanon itself. That's the whole point of the blog. Before Blog-Lebo started, I used to post occasional Mt. Lebanon items here at Pittsblog, and guess what? Readership dipped. It's not just local bloggers who are as parochial as the MSM (note that I initially wrote "rest of the MSM," subconsciously concluding that bloggers these days are part of the MSM - which is a fair if debatable position). All of Pittsburgh is as parochial as the MSM. That's why the MSM is so parochial. The rest of Pittsburgh doesn't care about the melodramas that afflict Mt. Lebanon.

In other words, if the Tube City Almanac hasn't gotten any takers, it may not be because the media doesn't care. It may be that no one cares about McKeesport, MSM or blog (pace Jason) or otherwise. The media have met the enemy, and they are us.

I'm tempted to end that sad story right there, but I won't. I am actually more optimistic than that. If I think that it's unlikely that hyperlocal journalism can find a viable business model on a large scale, that doesn't mean that hyperlocal journalism can't survive. But instead of its producers thinking of the product as a part of a for-profit economy, hyperlocal journalism may be able to find a stable foothold as part of a gift economy. Jason gives his time at Tube City; I used to give my time at Blog-Lebo. A friend of mine in Cleveland runs a firm that supplies the software for something called the Lakewood Observer, which is quite explicit about its foundation in the gift economy. That site is a gift from the community's residents to themselves.

Someone will come along and point out that without professional, paid journalists, there is no objectivity, accountability, or assurance of accuracy. There is no definitive record. Well, sure. Increasingly, journalistic content is like other mass entertainment: In the era of the Internet, we are settling for what's available (music on iTunes!) rather than holding out for quality. But I also find, increasingly, that without volunteer bloggers those professional, paid journalists would have less to write about. (Local MSM do crib from and find leads in local blogs.) If Jason Togyer and Tube City didn't exist, then it's possible that they would be invented; if, like Victor Laszlo, he were to disappear (a possibility that I raise only as a hypothetical!), then others might well rise up to take his place.

Or so I would hope. It's the romantic in me.


3 Responses to "Tube City, McKeesport and the Future of Hyperlocalism"

Chris Potter said... 12/17/2009 9:33 AM

Yes, obviously interest in community sites will fluctuate according to whether a person lives in the community. That's only to be expected.

But this seems to be an interesting development for the community of BLOGGERS as well, and I was surprised no one seemed to notice. Granted, it's not as earth-shattering as the identify of PittGirl. But still, I'd have thought it would draw SOME attention.

And my larger point, really, is that Jason is engaging in an interesting experiment: How will a "citizens journalism" model work in places where the citizens are often barely making ends meet, and may not have the ability to attend endless school-board meetings?

Because I'd argue Mt. Lebanon actually gets a disproportionate amount of MSM coverage -- anyone remember the high school's "Top 25 girls" list kerfluffle? Probably that's because so many reporters DO live there. And as an affluent community, Mt. Lebanon is probably blessed/cursed with a lot of coverage by the MSM AND by residents with lots of online access.

So ... what happens to communities that aren't similarly situated? You're absolutely right that newsroom cuts and consolidation mean less attention from the professional media. (And I think the issue here isn't just accountability and accuracy -- we paid journos screw up plenty on our own -- but consistency: people being PAID to be at every meeting, and draw on an institutional memory about what happened three years ago, etc.) I've heard "hyperlocal" bandied about as a solution to these issues, so Tube City will be an interesting test case to see how well that works. How far can a hyperlocal, online model go to fill the void being left behind by shrinking local coverage ... coverage which, as the "top girls" example suggests, was uneven to begin with? Jason is trying to step up the bloggers' game, and the results will be interesting for what they say about the technology, and for what they say about how communities are going to get their information.

Mike Madison said... 12/17/2009 12:05 PM

Mt. Lebanon may have a disproportionately large share of MSM coverage for a small town, and a disproportionately large number of people with fast access and cheap tech tools at their disposal, but at the end of the day - as I learned myself - "hyperlocal" coverage (i.e., nonprofessional coverage) still requires volunteers to step up and give away their time. To the extent that Mt. Lebanon has more of those -- if it does, and I'm not confident that's true -- then it's because there are folks in town who simply care. The necessary resources are time and passion, not tech and cash.

In other words, I think that it's an error to focus on the (business) model or on the technology. (Blogging technology is free, pretty much idiot-proof, and perfectly functional in a dialup environment.) The TCA experiment won't tell us much about either one. It might tell us something about McKeesport. Or not.

As for whether the blogosphere noticed this whole thing, I think that blogrolls tell the story. How many Pittsburgh-area bloggers think of themselves as being in the journalism sector, even part-time and even as amateurs? Only a few. Look at their blogrolls. How many list TCA? Not many again. Jason was a pioneer who is largely ignored by the Burghosphere.

C. Briem said... 12/18/2009 12:27 PM

one thing is... to me it's a bit unclear how big the marginal change was. TC was in fact acting much as a de facto media outlet for greater McKeesport. The news of small stipends for others to contribute does not seem like that big a jump in itself, or at least probably won't add much beyond the value JT himself puts into it. The question is why so little notice compared to at least a little notice paid to Ryan? although in the end they may get to the same place. The difference again is TC is not really an experiment in itself any more IMHO.

There is a 'long tail' angle to the whole hyperlocal news idea.. need to cogitate more on that.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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