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Hyperlocal Journalism Gets Legit

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If anyone with a laptop can report news, what's a reporter?

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Stop the presses! There's a new reporter in town, and he might just be your neighbor.

The New Jersey Press Association's decision to issue press credentials last week to reporters at a hyper-local website underscores the changing nature of news-gathering in the digital age.

TheAlternativePress.com -- which proclaims that it has "more than 120 paid reporters, all residing in New Jersey" -- recently announced the accreditation amid stories on three holes-in-one at the Summit Municipal Golf Course during a single week and Boy Scouts who rafted through the Grand Canyon.

"We issue credentials to working journalists if they can document that they cover hard news -- fires, car accidents, and things like that," says John O'Brien Executive Director of the New Jersey Press Association. "It doesn't matter if you're a member of the alternative or mainstream press."

Michael M. Shapiro, TheAlternativePress.com's founding editor and publisher, says two staffers now have press credentials and he expects the entire staff will be credentialed by the end of the year.

The New Jersey Press Association's action is forward-looking. Some government agencies have been slow to recognize the tectonic shift in news-gathering. In 2007, three bloggers sued the New York Police Department in federal court after they were denied press credentials, but finally prevailed this year.

Much has been written about how the Internet and Craigslist have destroyed the business model for newspapers, an industry that once routinely generated profit margins of 20% or more. But less chatter has been devoted to a basic question: In the digital age, who is a reporter and what are a reporter's responsibilities?

The short answer: Thanks to the Internet, anyone with a laptop and a digital camera is now a reporter. The democratization of news changes everything, a fact Napoleon understood when he said, "I fear three newspapers more than a hundred thousand bayonets."

How citizen reporters have changed things is both startling and dramatic: The Iranian government controls all the established media -- radio, TV, and newspapers -- but the murder of 27-year-old Neda Agha Soltan on the streets of Tehran in June became a symbol of opposition to the government and a fraudulent election. The Internet instantly spread the image of her death worldwide, undercutting the legitimacy of Iran's government.

In the US, James O'Keefe, 27, and Hannah Giles, 20, posed as a pimp and a prostitute seeking help in securing a mortgage for a brothel so they could illegally bring in underage girls from Latin America. The result: an expose of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now -- the organization that offered the advice. Congress quickly voted to pull the group's federal grants.
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