If you’re like most media consumers, you read your news online. There, on social media feeds (depending on algorithms such as which pages you like and the types of content your friends share), stories and articles stream in constantly, leaving you to sort out the useful from the drivel.
Over two million articles are uploaded to the Internet every day, but not all are valuable to the media consumer. Trending topics, no matter how banal, dominate discourse. Fake news misinforms. Clickbait articles with no real intellectual truths are shared by the thousands, clogging information highways and swaying political opinion.
This sheer torrent of daily content requires audiences to employ some filtering skills — in the sole pursuit of absorbing the content that matters, the journalistic works that actually empower and inform the reader to make the best decisions in their lives, communities, societies and governments.
But in a media landscape that in many ways is dependent on shrinking ad revenues, dominated by “infotainment” and subject to political influence, many feel like it’s getting harder and harder to filter out the noise.
These challenges, for both media makers and consumers, exist on the local level too. Critics of broadcast stations like WGME and WCSH6, and newspapers like The Portland Press Herald and The Bangor Daily News (as well as the one you’re reading right now) have expressed mistrust and disinterest online. Take a short scroll through comment boards on the websites and social media pages of our local newspapers (and stations) and you'll find these critiques crying bias and irrelevance. For some Mainers, local journalism feels more like an attempt to garner clicks and retweets, instead of to inform. To those critics, local journalists come across as stenographers of fires, crimes and personal tragedies, producers of pre-packaged PR content, or panderers of “trending topics,” leaving audiences with a void where community-focused, impactful stories should be. Of course, quality journalism does happen on the local level — take Matthew Stones investigative report for The Bangor Daily News that found the DHHS misappropriated over 13 million dollars of federal welfare funds — however, the problem is, according to one new group of local media makers, that important stories like Stone's often get lost in the shuffle because they're not told through the mediums that modern consumers rely on.
That new group of media makers aims to fill that void with hard-hitting stories and address the disconnect between old-school journalism and new-school storytelling platforms.
Last week, a Maine-focused, non-partisan digital media platform launched on Kickstarter that aims to bridge the gap between "in-depth local journalism and online visual formats that audiences demand." It’s called Grand State, and it’s about $40,000 away from being a reality.
The project is the brainchild of Alex Steed, a blogger at The Bangor Daily News and "visual storyteller" at Knack Factory, a content production firm. To Steed, it was living in Maine under the reign of LePage, a master manipulator of the media, that inspired the idea of this non-partisan venture. Then when Donald Trump, another adept out-maneuverer of the media, won the Presidential election, a fire was lit. It was time to turn his frustrations and ideas into something concrete and constructive.
“When I woke up after Election day, I thought, Okay, this is something I need to figure out now,” said Steed. “I want everybody to feel the urgency of this. Local media outlets have a hard time keeping up with the frantic pace of important stories, and as a result, fail to go deep with a lot of them.”
In the video from their Kickstarter pitch, Steed and (Grand State co-founder and editorial director) Molly Adams give an example of this disconnect between local reporting and the core issues they’re meant to bring to light. Last summer, they claim, when LePage spoke at a town hall meeting about the opioid crisis, the articles and interviews that followed focused on the Governor's racially charged accusations about the nature of drug dealers coming into the state, and later on his voice-mail meltdown with a Westbrook lawmaker. This left readers none the wiser about the true nature of the drug epidemic that took the lives of 272 Mainers in 2015.
According to Steed, Grand State would take that topic and work with journalists, nonprofit organizations, and community advocates to go deeper into the issue. In this case, he says they might produce a video which explains the actions state powers are taking at a policy level to keep heroin out of the state. Or stories of families dealing with addiction. or highlighting the knowledge that folks within organizations like the Frannie Peabody Center have regarding the relationship between HIV/AIDS and heroin use.
An important part of Grand State’s news model, Steed says, is the formation of an editorial council that best represents Mainers from all different backgrounds, and will focus and inform their reporting around community conversations. By inviting people from across the spectrums of race, class, and gender to have a conversation, Grand State hopes to find a common ground, examine what people’s shared values are, and include narratives that are usually excluded from traditional media.
“Everyone’s affected by the same trends,” said Steed. “I’m doing this for the people that feel like they're rightly (and sometimes wrongly) under-served by their existing options. We want to take all the pieces that exist in traditional journalism and remix them in a place that we know people are looking.”
Since the launch, Steed said he’s seen an outpouring of support, suggestions, ideas, insights, and donations from locals, signaling that there’s a real demand for local news stories that reflect community values, promote civic engagement, and are told through popular online mediums.
Many from Portland have expressed their support by making a donation and writing online why they think local journalism, with a focus on civics education and context, matters.
“In order to create real and effective change, we have to start in our own communities,” wrote Caseylin Darcy, a marketing professional and local yoga teacher. “To do that, we need an honest and informed media that shines a light on the important issues affecting Maine.”
That’s not to say that Steed thinks that local media is doing a poor job; the day-to-day coverage is important, he says, but there’s a connective piece missing between more investigative stories and the visual mediums that audiences demand.
“Research at the Pew Research Center has found that by 2018, 80 percent of news content will be visual,” said Steed. “And we know from other studies that media literacy is directly related to civic engagement.”
The launch team at Grand State is comprised of locals who have written for newspapers, made radio broadcasts and produced video content. Adams got her start over a decade ago working for Blunt Youth Radio in Portland. Ultimately the Grand State team's goal is to provide Maine with local stories that are able to inform, empower and inspire engagement amongst those that consume them. But first, they need the community's help to cover the start-up costs.
“Call me old-fashioned,” wrote Samuel James, a blues musician and writer for The Bollard. “...but I just want my media to tell me the truth.”
Want to support local journalism that digs deep into community-focused issues? Here's Grand State's Kickstarter page: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1907242405/grand-state-a-maine-focused-digital-news-network/description