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April 13, 2015

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These fourth-year journalism students created a hyperlocal website for South Whyte—one of five hyperlocals produced by their senior-level beat reporting class. See them all at macewanjournalism.com.

Journalism students use a micro lens to find hyperlocal stories

If you look hard enough, there really is news everywhere. That’s what students in Dr. Brian Gorman’s senior-level beat reporting class learned last semester when they created a series of five hyperlocal websites that investigate different parts of the city at a micro level.

Hyperlocals are a relatively new focus in news coverage, honing in on communities—geographic, political or social—that are too small to be worth covering inside a larger metro paper, but offer the perfect venue for bloggers and startups.

“The aim was for students to create a hyperlocal news site from scratch—that involves news judgment, writing, editing, crafting headlines, taking photographs, web design, and mapping and exploring a beat, or more accurately, a specialty,” says Brian. “These students will soon be going out into a world that desperately needs new ideas about ways to keep the conversation going. If there was one main benefit to this exercise, it was to assure students that they don’t need an employer to use their skills to practice journalism.”

That’s an important message in a time when it’s not unusual to hear news outlets reporting on downsizing newsrooms. “Today’s journalism grads are often creating their own jobs and we’re teaching our students to be able to do that—that means creating original thinkers, not necessarily training employees.”

Covering the beat across the street

Kyle Muzyka, editor for the South Whyte hyperlocal, admits to feeling a bit like his group got the short end of the stick when starting their project.

“The team covering North Whyte had a lot of great businesses to work with, but Whyte is such a cultural phenomenon, that you can literally take 15 steps across the street and feel a different vibe,” he says. “It was a friendly competition and a lot of fun to have such a narrow focus. It taught us all a lot about finding stories and taking a new angle on stories that have already been covered.”

Their site included everything from hard news—the vandalism of a vintage piano sitting outside of Cally’s Teas—to features that looked at busking in the cold and took a peek inside a drawer of random notes in a local café.

For Kevin Pennyfeather, the experience was a bit different. As the editor for hyperlocal YEGbeats, he and his classmates were looking for untold stories in Edmonton’s music scene.

“Right from the get-go our group knew we didn’t want to focus on a neighbourhood,” he explains. “We wanted to do something that encompassed the whole city, so we settled on music.”

Preparing for a niche career

Kevin says that while there is currently good coverage of the music scene, getting the whole scoop can involve some legwork that people don’t always have time for. And covering news in a niche market—whether that’s music, video games or politics—is part of Kevin’s own career plan.

“I’ve grown up reading my news online and have never wanted to be a traditional journalist,” he says. “I want to write about things that I’m intensely interested in and that I know other people care about. I’ve never had a fear that there won’t be some kind of work for me when I graduate. I’m developing my skillset—telling stories and talking to people. I know there’s a place for that, even if it’s not writing for a giant daily newspaper in my hometown.”

Brian says he will likely lean on hyperlocals again when he offers the beat-reporting class again next year, but perhaps with an even more “hyper” focus.

“Next year we may change the focus and look at covering the area immediately surrounding the university and there is potential to consider producing online biweekly news,” says Brian, adding that this year’s students have provided a great foundation to build upon. “The mood and flavor of the site students created this year is very much local—they really nailed it.”

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