Can MIT’s Media Lab help to reinvent local media?

As national newspapers like the New York Times (s nyt) struggle to reinvent themselves for a digital age, there’s also a widening gap in the local and community-level media market, as the FCC described in its recent report on the state of the media industry. For every chain like the Journal-Register that is trying innovative “digital first” strategies, there are dozens of media outlets trying to downsize their way to profitability or installing paywalls. The Knight Foundation, one of the leading funders of media experimentation in the U.S., is hoping to help solve the local media problem through the Center for Civic Media at MIT. It just announced new funding for the center, and a new director: online media pioneer Ethan Zuckerman.

Zuckerman is a longtime fellow of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where he and former CNN (s twx) foreign correspondent Rebecca MacKinnon created what became Global Voices Online. That site encourages social activists and others in developing countries around the world to use blogs to combat repression and censorship. In an interview with the Nieman Journalism Lab (which is also affiliated with Harvard), Zuckerman said he sees the Center for Civic Media as having a similar goal: to help citizens of communities throughout the U.S. find new ways to tell their own stories and inform themselves about what is happening around them.

The Center is going to be a place that’s investigating this question of how communities get information, how communities produce information, how people make decisions about becoming civically active. It’s a broader approach to this than just citizen journalism… It’s basically as broad as this question of how do communities make decisions based on information?

The MIT center used to be called the Center for Future Civic Media, but Zuckerman said the name was changed to reflect that it’s hoping to affect the present, not just the future. “The truth is this field is moving so quickly that in many cases I’m actually interested in the present of civic media,” he said. The Knight Foundation — which helped to spark the creation of the center in 2006 after it won the non-profit organization’s annual Knight News Challenge competition — has said it will give the center $3.76 million in funding over the next three years.

In many ways, the local and community-level media market is seeing as much or more upheaval as the national or international news business. Companies like the Journal-Register are trying to reinvent themselves after going bankrupt, while other newspaper chains are continuing to downsize — Gannett (s gci) just announced it’s laying off 700 staff across the chain — and many newspapers are implementing paywalls to try to shore up their revenue and keep their circulation from continuing to slide.

Meanwhile, entities like AOL’s Patch (s aol) are trying to move into smaller markets and become the alternative to those traditional media outlets. AOL has spent more than $100 million on installing local journalists in more than 800 towns and communities — and argues it’s filling the “accountability gap” that the FCC noted in its recent report — but the financial viability of the venture is still a big question mark. Some other ventures such as Washington’s TBD have effectively failed. Then there are smaller community-level entities such as the Sacramento Press, the new Chicago News Co-operative, the Tumblr-based Neighborhoodr network and more automated solutions such as Topix and Chicago-based news aggregator Everyblock (which was originally funded by a Knight Foundation grant).

In his interview with the Nieman Lab, Zuckerman said he sees the new Center at MIT (which is a joint venture between the existing MIT Media Lab and the university’s Comparative Media Studies program) as trying to help the various players in this new ecosystem — which includes Twitter and Facebook and other networks — figure out how local and community media works now.

We’re now talking about an ecosystem involving bloggers and twitterers and Facebook and YouTube, as well as all this broadcast media. And literally just trying to figure out how this all works together — what makes one story go viral and another one disappear? Who is shaping the news agenda? These aren’t just academic topics.

The center’s new director also noted that one of the mandates of the Media Lab (which also recently got a new director in Joichi Ito) is that students “need to produce something useable,” not just spend their time talking about academic theory, and that this should help ensure that the new center “doesn’t ever become purely theoretical but is always straddling the boundary between theory and practice.” Whether any of those projects can help provide a solution for struggling local and community media remains to be seen.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user David Reece