Muckraking isn't the prettiest word in the English language, but the work of its best-known proponents has led to some of America's most important political, social and legal reforms. Gritty individuals like Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker and Upton Sinclair put their reputations, even their lives, on the line to shed light on scenarios of corruption, abuse and inequality.
Isn't it interesting to consider what these individuals might have done had they lived in the days of the hyperlocal blog? In the past, muckrakers frequently had to hammer their stories through the tough and narrow mediums of the mainstream press or publishing houses. Today, someone like you can tell the truth that you know, with the click of a button. The hyperlocal blog presents a unique opportunity to highlight serious local concerns, but what place does muckraking have in this new world? Is it a good idea or not?
On his own hyperlocal blog, Matt McGee has just published a series of smart tips he gave to one of the people whose work I respect most in the small business world: Anita Campbell of SmallBizTrends.com, for a webinar. Matt and Anita suggest that hyperlocal blogs which have been created to increase customer loyalty should avoid controversy:
All this talk about being a community resource is fine and good, but it's still a business blog that you're running. You don't have to blog about everything going on in town and risk alienating potential customers. I'd avoid politics on a hyperlocal business blog. I'd avoid being too critical of local groups, organizations, other businesses, and really just about anyone. You don't have to be the town's cheerleader who presents everything as Super-Duper Awesome, but you should skip the controversial stuff if you're trying to build loyal local customers.
I'm pretty much of the same mind with Matt and Anita on this (in fact, I gave similar advice in a series of posts I wrote on Hyperlocal Blogging back in 2008). If your hyperlocal blog is part of your presence as the local barber, restaurant owner or psychotherapist, it probably won't be 'good for business' to use this vehicle as your opportunity to call out the mayor for shoplifting at the local liquor store, right? The potential outcomes of doing so demand that I quote Mark Twain:
A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.
Yes, using your hyperlocal business blog might create a hot time in the old town tonight for awhile, generating buzz and links, but when the people you might expose come back with blistering accusations about you and your activities, you might just wind up out of business...possibly even riding out of town on a proverbial rail.
So Where Do You And Your Muckraking Sensibilities Belong?
To me, the definition of a muckraker encompasses individuals who prize truth and loathe injustice. If this describes you, then you may have a future as a hyperlocal journalist who publishes your findings via a non-business-related blog. There's just no denying that Americans are reticent about controversy in the business world. Most of us do business with people whose core beliefs differ widely from our own; we don't include a dose of politics and religion with each bag of groceries we vend, and though, in a sense, this both inhibits our chances to express ourselves in a genuine manner at times and also lessens chances for forging authentic bridges of acceptance, appreciation and tolerance of differences, it probably does make 'doing business' easier for everyone, simply because some people can't disagree without becoming nasty.
Because of this societal convention, your muckraking blog is likely going to be a less risky and more effective venture if published independently of your business. After all, it may come across as rather odd to promote a message that says, "Eat at our cafe, but first find out about the pollution of our city's water." While this independence certainly doesn't preclude possibilities of monetizing with related local advertising (for example, from the company that sells reverse osmosis filters for the polluted water), it will enable you to tell the truth without causing discomfort and controversy in your own business dealings.
If You're Going To Tell The Truth, Commit To Being Truthful
A friend of mine recently began publishing his own hyperlocal news blog because of a situation he found undesirable and concerning in his small town. The only local newspaper was purchased by a high local official, effectively making this important resource the mouthpiece for the politician. My friend's blog will ensure that both sides of a given story can be told and this will hopefully help create a better-informed community for him and his family to live in. I call that a good motive and a fine use of his time. I don't know that he has any intentions of doing any real muckraking, but he will at least be helping to keep the news above-board in his town.
But, whether you are planning to simply present a balanced story or run real expose pieces, do the job right by adhering to these simple guidelines:
I've had somewhat extensive first-hand experience reporting on controversial issues. Some of my work has been deemed important enough to be picked up by local news and radio sources. Because of my experience with this, I'd like to take just a moment to return to the third point on my list. Anyone who blogs regularly becomes aware that any collection of blog comments may include everything from meaningful praise to important dissent to plain old troll-isms. You really do need to be ready to deal with this. Can you take criticism without getting huffy? Can you report on issues you feel deeply about, that may be having direct negative effects on your family's life, without taking disagreement as a personal attack? Don't underestimate how hard this is to do.
Imagine being the reporter from Anniston, Alabama who realized that a local chemical plant was pouring chemicals into your town's water source, creating a rash of cancer, deaths and eventually, a ghost town. How would you report on something like that? Obviously, my hope is that your town isn't facing something as tragic as this, but when you start digging into local issues anywhere, you are almost guaranteed to start turning up some very dirty stuff and some very unhappy local people. It's going to take a special blogger to cover this type of story with a cool head, a keen mind and a powerful voice.
In sum, I believe that hyperlocal blogs have a unique potential to rake the muck, galvanize communities to informed action and facilitate meaningful change. I also believe that anyone who takes on the position of hyperlocal reporter for towns with real troubles is taking on a very serious responsibility. Your writing skills are certainly needed, but I think your real qualifications for the job are a sterling set of ethics that will enable you to tell the truth and help people better their lives. If you're ready to take this on, take with you my wishes for the very best of luck in the important work ahead!
Update: I need to make a small correction. The advice regarding controversy on hyperlocal blogs, was given by Matt McGee to Anita Campbell for a webinar. Sorry for my mistake - both Matt & Anita are terrific on this topic!
Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.
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