Block by Block Conference LogoThe death of the newspaper is almost an old story at this point. Technology and business writers have had the grim task of reporting on their own demise for so long that they’ve developed a grim gallows humor. Chicago has been lucky to retain the Tribune, and other papers like the Chicago Reader, but across the country, many have watched their local and regional papers shrink and vanish. News has moved online, is all about the sound bite, and no one seems to care. This might sound grim, but it also sounds familiar. This is the narrative that has been playing out about news and newspapers for much of the past decade, but this weekend, I got to spend some time with the people who are trying to write a new and exciting story about what happens next.

Last weekend, I attended Block by Block, a community news summit hosted at Loyola Chicago University. This was essentially a conference and forum for the people behind the innovative news websites that have risen to fill the void left behind by vanishing and shrinking newspapers. Most participants admitted that their sites were founded by floundering and panicked journalists, who, when worried the sky was falling in on their profession, moved their work online.  But since their founding, most of the sites participating in Block by Block had come to be defined by their differences from traditional newspapers.

Most have a regional, local, or even “hyper-local” focus, meaning that while they may cover national issues, they always are sure to relate them to their local impact, and they will never neglect local news in favor of the national story. To provide local content some rely on citizen journalism and nearly all have extensive online commenting opportunities. In the introduction session, when each site briefly had their home page up, I saw stories ranging from a local murder, school board meetings, local fundraisers for the Leukemia and Lymphoma society, and a raccoon problem. Many are taking advantage of the ease of creating multimedia content on the web to take the concept of hyper-local to a new level. A website in Texas was able to stream their local high school graduation live from their website. This event was of little national importance, but it did mean a local mom in Iraq could watch her son receive his diploma.

But my favorite moment of the conference came when an organizer asked those who came to community news without any journalism experience why they chose to enter this field, and their answers were even more illuminating about their differences from traditional news.

One woman responded that she started working for her website to promote social justice. She was worried about the level of civic engagement in her town, and the lack of civics and ethics education available today. She wanted to make sure that at least in her town, there was a resource for people to be informed and hopefully involved in the decision making. Another responded that his experience serving on a school board made him realize how important to decision-making access to local news and awareness of local politics and policy is.

Yet another participant, whose background was in business, responded that after moving to a new place, she wanted a job that would really plug her into the heart of her new home, and make her feel like she belonged. Another responded that he hoped his website would serve as the rich soil for growth in civic engagement.

After listening to the responses, the conference organizer who initially asked the question remarked that in our digital age, information is increasingly a commodity, and that it seems that these new news websites are determined to continue providing information, especially relevant local information, to everyone who wants it.

I left the conference incredibly excited and inspired about the future of news and civic engagement (learning more about civic and community engagement being a primary reason why I attended the conference). I was especially excited because on the last day of the conference, many of the participants chose to begin work on creating a professional society of community news websites to defend their common interests, and to increase the group’s chances of survival. Hopefully their decision will lead to more and better chances for community news to grow.

And before I sign out, I just wanted to point that not all of these websites are entrenched in small communities – many big cities, like New York and Seattle, were represented by multiple sites who had found niche audience and communities. Chicago too, as the host of the conference, hosts a wealth of small community news websites. Some of the excellent ones you should check out include Chicagoist, for general Chicago news and events, Small Business Executive, for news and information on small businesses in Chicago, The Welles Park Bulldog, which focuses on the Welles Park neighborhood, North Lawndale Community News, which focuses on news and resources to improve the lives of North Lawndale community residents, and the new website Neighborhood Scribe, which hopes to report the untold stories of Chicago. If I forgot any great local websites, you should share them with us in the comments.