I started out in journalism nearly 30 years ago, on a local newspaper as an indentured reporter, going to parish council meetings and Rose Queen fêtes.
There were no personal computers and no internet in 1978; only typewriters with carbon paper. Stories were gathered from paper-based press releases, phone interviews and face-to-face meetings.
I could never have imagined filing by computer, let alone publishing instantly on breaking news from a laptop as I did earlier this month – blogging live from a Google press event.
Citizen journalism was unimaginable, where any internet user creates their own discussion forum, blog and online paper – as many as 50,000 of them working for one site, OhmyNews in Korea.
But despite all of these advances, it would be nice to think there is a place for a local newspaper, online or offline, for the town where you live, where only journalists on the ground reporting events sensitively and methodically can provide adequate coverage.
However, the reporter on the local rag is more of an endangered species than I thought. The Pasadena Now website this month hired two reporters to cover the local Pasadena city council.
But these were not journalists expected to mix with representatives in backrooms and bars and deliver inside scoops on council business. One lived in Mumbai, India, and will be paid $12,000 a year, the other, in Bangalore, will earn $7,200.
“A lot of routine stuff we do can be done by really talented people in another time zone at much lower wages,” James Macpherson, the editor, told the Los Angeles Times.
This was outsourcing and globalisation taken to an unexpected level. The Reuters news agency has been covering Wall Street using reporters in India for some time, but taking the same approach for local news is unprecedented.
There was a certain irony in the fact that Mr Macpherson had posted an ad for the jobs on the Bangalore and Mumbai editions of Craigslist.org.
Craigslist began here in San Francisco with its free classified listings, and has spread around the world, now taking US jobs abroad.
It is already being blamed for many of the woes of local newspapers, reportedly costing the Bay Area’s traditional newspapers between $50m and $65m annually in classified advertising revenues.
That is close to the size of losses being incurred by the biggest local newspaper here, the San Francisco Chronicle, currently losing around $1m a week.
That prompted an announcement this month of job cuts – about 25 per cent of the newsroom is to be made redundant.
The Chronicle has been a victim of its locale in feeling the effects of the internet before other newspapers.
“We’re here in the birthplace of Craigslist and in the cradle of Silicon Valley, where everyone is wired,” a media analyst told the Chronicle in its own reporting of the story.
Craigslist, for all its grass-roots street cred, has been accused by some as acting like a Wal-Mart in undercutting and threatening the livelihoods of local newspapers.
To rub salt into the wounds, its founder Craig Newmark, has also been backing citizen journalism, although he has softened his approach of late to back projects merging traditional journalism standards with new media reporting, such as newassignment.net, citmedia.org and daylife.com.
Newspapers are fighting back by pooling their efforts to maximise the advertising opportunities of their online editions. Last month, 12 newspaper groups representing more than 260 newspapers in 44 states announced an expansion of a relationship with Yahoo. The internet company will help them create an online advertising network, selling and serving ad inventory for them. It will also help to distribute their content.
There is also evidence that traditional newspapers can benefit from untapped local online advertising, compensating them for losses in offline revenues.
Google currently has around 500,000 advertisers, but there are 6m local businesses in the US.
At the recent Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco, Rich Skrenta, chief executive and co-founder of Topix.net, a news aggregation site, described how it had gone “hyper-local”.
The site delivers news to visitors according to zip code, but found it did not have enough local content. It posted 22,000 local stories a day from newspaper, radio and TV sources, but there are 32,500 populated zip codes in the US. It thought it could boost content by including material from blogs, but while 23 per cent of mainstream media is “local”, only 12 per cent of blog content fits this category.
So it added comment tools and discussion groups and encouraged local people to sign up as editors who could determine content. From 5m visitors a month in 2006 reading on average 2.3 pages, Topix grew to 10m unique visitors with 20 page views per columnist this year. It now has 40,000 posts a day – as many as there are articles being put into its system. That is attracting more advertising, targeted at what visitors are reading and are interested in.
There is hope then for local news, in a world where everyone now is starting out as a cub reporter.