The Real “Wire”: Engaging Communities of Difference through Online and Mobile Media

Community is a mosaic, not a monolith. That's what makes covering communities so fascinating -- and challenging.


This HBO drama offers a nuanced portrayal of low-income crime-ravaged urban communities with little meaningful connection to local mainstream news.

Your news organization's coverage area includes many communities. These communities are defined by more than geography. Communities form around any number of shared characteristics including: race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical ability and age -- as well as military service, language, economics, culture, faith, occupation, incarceration, politics, education, intellectual or recreational interests, and more.

This demographic mosaic continually shifts: local communities arrive, leave, splinter, and merge all the time. Some core groups (like homeowners or college students) remain a constant presence that's fairly easy to track, cover, and engage. Other communities may slip more easily below your coverage threshhold.

You can see this dynamic at work in HBO's hit series The Wire. This show has triggered considerable debate over how various segments of modern community connect and disconnect. Series creator David Simon was a longtime Baltimore Sun reporter. The final season of The Wire (Season 5) focuses on a fictionalized version of the daily paper and its role in that struggling city -- drawn heavily from Simon's experiences at the real Sun. It's not a pretty picture, but it does offer some important journalistic lessons.

In one episode, a serial killer appears to be murdering Baltimore vagrants. The city editor tells a reporter to gather reaction quotes from local homeless people. When the reporter balks, preferring to cover "more serious" angles of the story, the city editor sternly replies:

"Just because they're in the street doesn't mean they lack opinions."

Indeed, one key shortcoming of The Sun (as portrayed in The Wire) is the glaring disconnect between much of the (fictional) paper's coverage and a substantial portion of Baltimore's population. This stands in stark contrast to the nuanced, thoughtful, in-depth treatment those same low-income, inner-city communities are given throughout the series.

There's a reason why, in this TV drama, you rarely see a character who isn't in politics or law enforcement who reads or mentions the paper. To most of The Wire's characters, the paper has become irrelevant to their lives and communities.

The Wire also shows that low-income urban residents (like many marginalized communities) are neither unaware nor unsophisticated about communication technology. Many characters are especially savvy about the multiple uses of cell phones. Yet in the series, the (fictional) paper makes no apparent effort to reach out to these communities via mobile media. Nor is it shown building bridges with talk radio and other locally influential media.

Yes, The Wire is fiction -- but it's grounded in real journalistic experience.

In an age when traditional audiences are shrinking for most news organizations, it's crucial to reach out to new and growing markets. Often, these markets can be found in demographics previously overlooked or underserved by local news. To succeed, you'll need to prove your relevance to them -- in terms of coverage choices, editorial approach, and media channels.

Online and mobile media are a natural choice for trying out new approaches and reaching out to more communities. They're generally easier and less costly to experiment with than traditional platforms, and to scale up once you see what works. Results can often be measured quickly and clearly. They allow more flexibility in the type of media presented (text, photos, video, audio, maps, etc.), which can expand your appeal to new groups. Best of all, these media are inherently conversational and interactive -- offering direct insight into what your communities want and need.

In the following sections we offer some tips, strategies, and resources for getting started with deploying this kind of "wire" -- technology that can engage and serve your communities while also strengthening your news organization.

Next: Mobile Media: The Best Place to Start...

Total Community Coverage Series

ABOUT THIS SERIES

Amy Gahran is a journalist, media consultant, and entrepreneur based in Boulder, Colo. Mostly she helps news organizations and media pros wrap their brains around online media — how it really works, and how to use it well. She edits the Poynter Institute's group Web log E-Media Tidbits, is co-founder of the pro/community journalism project Boulder Carbon Tax Tracker, and blogs at Contentious.com. She covers ahead-of-the curve environmental issues and provides technology consulting for the Society of Environmental Journalists, helped develop the citizen media database for the Knight Citizen News Network, and continues to do freelance journalism on energy, environment, business, media, and technology issues.

Email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Phone: (303) 554-5550

Total Community Coverage Blog

Read Total Community Coverage, a blog dedicated to exploring how online news organizations can play a much greater role than their legacy counterparts in contributing to social and civic dialogue. Visit the blog.

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