A Hyperlocal Future for Chinatown?

Last night, I participated in a panel discussion at the Museum of Chinese in America on “what’s working and what’s not in mainstream media coverage of Manhattan’s Chinatown.”  The conversation was led by Paul Cheung of the Associated Press. The other panelists were: Cindy Liu (a Mandarin language TV reporter and former reporter for Sin Tao Daily), Kirk Semple of the New York Times, John Bayles of Downtown Express and Tony DeStefano of Newsday.

Following the discussion, there was a surprise announcement from Jeff Yang, the event’s organizer, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist and a member of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA).  As panel members took their seats in the audience, Yang began a power point presentation detailing plans for a new hyperlocal news venture in Chinatown. Drawing on recently awarded grant money, AAJA is launching a multi-lingual blog — focusing on a neighborhood that is often ignored by the city’s mainstream media outlets.

The blog will make liberal use of mobile content (both to receive and deliver text & images) and will attempt to bridge the neighborhood’s Chinese-speaking and English-speaking communities. Yang said “OurChinatown” will rely on volunteer reporters and tap into the many advocacy and arts organizations in Lower Manhattan. He made it clear the venture will seek to engage existing online and print publications, such as The Lo-Down and Downtown Express.

During the presentation, Yang noted that most financially viable  hyperlocal web sites (he mentioned Baristanet in New Jersey and the West Seattle Blog) are operating in fairly affluent communities. In Chinatown, where the median household income hovers around $20,000/yr, creating a profitable for-profit web site is going to be a tall order (it’s one reason our focus is all of the LES, not just Chinatown). It’s because of these financial realities that AAJA, with foundation support, chose to test a non-profit model in Manhattan.

We tend not to talk a lot about “the future of news” and our own aspirations for The Lo-Down, on the theory that actions speak louder than words. But I’ll say this: there is obviously a huge need for more in-depth community-based reporting from Chinatown, one of this city’s most dynamic neighborhoods.  I think the AAJA project sounds exciting and worthwhile — and we look forward to supporting it.

A few people asked me last night if we were concerned about the prospect of more “competition” for stories. As someone who toiled for more than a decade in the treacherous snake pit that is network television news, I’m well acquainted with competitive pressures. But I think we’d all be a lot better off if we recognized that the “mass media… there’s only room for one news organization in this town, pal” mentality is hopelessly outdated.

On the Lower East Side, for example, there are several great blogs, each focusing on different issues and presenting stories in different ways.  I’ve got to believe people interested in what’s happening in their community are benefiting from this new diversity.  Everyone’s now trying to figure out how to make online community news “sustainable.” It is definitely in this neighborhood’s interest to support anyone trying to solve the hyperlocal riddle.