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Localism in the Era of Globalization and New Technologies: Implications for the 21st Century

As we come to the end of the 20th century and look forward to a new century and a new millennium, it is exciting to think of the opportunities facing those in media or media-related industries. However, with those seemingly endless opportunities awaiting the media professional in the new millennium come new challenges and new responsibilities never before faced. Media professionals are now facing what may be the fundamental question for them in the next century--that is, how to come to grips with the new technologies available and how to put them to their best use for all concerned.

The title of this article is "Localism in the Era of Globalization and New Technologies: Implications for the 21st Century." The author will explore each of the elements of that title in some detail. In doing so, this article does not offer answers to questions. Rather, this article will (it is hoped) illuminate some of challenges mentioned earlier and suggest new areas of research that will be important to media professionals and media researchers in the coming millennium. If this article accomplishes nothing else, it is hoped that new researchers will see exciting new possibilities for study.

In many respects, media have traditionally been about localism--newspapers and radio, especially, but television also, traditionally focus on local audiences. Newspapers traditionally derive their existence from reaching a local audience with news and information that the local audience desires and demands. They have been associated with a city or region, and even while there are newspapers that are considered "national" in scope—such as USA Today in the United States or Gazeta Wyborcza in Warsaw, Poland, to name just a couple—newspapers have tended to focus on the audience in and around the area in which they are located.

Likewise, in the United States at least—and more and more now in countries where private broadcasting is beginning to exist side-by-side with the traditional public/state-run broadcasting—the focus of broadcasting has traditionally been to the local public. In the U.S. broadcasting law, the Communications Act of 1934, broadcasters are considered trustees of the airwaves; they are borrowing the airwaves from their publics and are to act in the public's interest, at the public's convenience, and for the public's needs. If they don't, their licenses to broadcast can be taken away and given to others.

So the focus of much of the media, and certainly the more powerful of the media industries, has traditionally been to the local publics which they are to serve. As such, localism has been the key to the continued existence of media outlets. Newspapers, most often, are local monopolies. Newspapers, radio stations, and television stations pride themselves on being a part of their local communities. The advertising revenues generated come primarily from businesses within the local communities. The news and information, music and programming are developed with the makeup of the local community in mind. In small towns, newspapers cover the city with almost a "blind eye" to whatever else may be happening in the world. Radio stations attempt to stay close to their public through providing varying music designed to meet the musical needs and tastes of the various publics that comprise the community. In larger towns, cities, and metropolitan areas, newspapers still often enjoy a local monopoly and spend much of their editorial space on happenings of a local nature, but will also provide some information regarding state, national, and international news. Nevertheless, it is the local news which has traditionally been the dominant focus of even these larger media outlets. Radio stations segment the market, aiming their programming at a specific constituent public. As such, a large city such as New York, Washington, or even Charlotte, North Carolina, will have numerous different programming formats to appeal to listeners of rock-and-roll, country music, jazz, news and talk, and classical music.

News and public affairs focus on those topics that are important or of interest to the media outlet's constituent public, whether it is the death of a world leader, concern over a gasoline spill in a local creek that could make individuals living in a neighborhood of the community ill, or the local political elections. Talk programs on the radio discuss topics of local interest with local leaders or individual citizens. Call-in programs let the community speak to itself about issues of importance.

Traditionally, it has been easy to define the community that the media outlets served. It was simply the town or city where the media outlet was located plus the surrounding area. Localism meant reaching those people with programming. The local community was finite, geographically defined, and physically near to the media outlet. Editors and station owners lived in the community, often hired local people, joined the local churches, clubs, and organizations.

Today, however, defining localism has become a complex problem. In this ever-shrinking world, defining the local community takes on a new significance. How does one define its local community when even a newspaper or radio station in a small hamlet can suddenly "go global"? This brings us to the second element of this article: globalization.

We live in a global society. It is no longer possible to see one another simply as citizens of a town or city, or even a region or a country. Increasingly, it becomes incumbent upon persons to realize the interdependence of the many societies and to view themselves not only as Americans or Germans or Hungarians or Koreans, but also as citizens of the world, to acknowledge the interdependence and to celebrate the special relationships and challenges such a closeness requires.

Such a recognition also acknowledges the transitory nature of society. No longer is it only the economically elite of a country that has the opportunity to visit another country or experience first-hand another culture. Today, travel among countries is most likely the norm for the average citizen rather than the exception to the rule. As such, Romanians no longer just live in Romania or Latvians just live in Latvia. Rather, they may live in the United States, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, England, Germany. The notion of community must grow to include these citizens who are physically part of one society while desiring to continue their association with the countries of their birth.

Therefore, media must be prepared to reach out to their communities around the world. In doing so, the notion of community becomes one no longer geographically limited, and technology provides the means for expansion. At the same time, the notion of localism has changed. How can one define what is local in a global world?

Adam Clayton Powell III, director of technology and programs at The Freedom Forum in Arlington, Virginia, serves as an example of the global citizen as well as demonstrating the importance and power of the new media technologies, the third element of this article. According to a report by Dirk Smillie, published in the Christian Science Monitor and republished over the internet through Nando Net, Powell, on a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, plugged his laptop computer into a hotel telephone jack and dialed into ABC Radio's website. In three minutes, he was able to be current on every major national news story breaking in the United States.(1) Here you have a person, halfway around the world from his home, listening to his country's newscasts from his computer.

And Powell could have made other decisions to satisfy his need to stay informed. Powell could have connected to any of more than 1,000 newspapers in the United States that now have World Wide Web sites. Being from a suburb of Washington, DC, he could have connected with the Washington Post Online.(2) If he had Pointcast (3) on his computer, he could have checked the latest news from Reuters. From the Wall Street Journal Online (4) he could have checked his portfolio of stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. From ESPN Online (5) he could have studied the latest sports news. He could even have connected to The Weather Channel.com (6) or Rain or Shine.com (7) and gotten the weather for Kuala Lumpur, his next destination, or even Arlington, Virginia...or he simply could have connected with CNN.com (8) and gotten all that from one source.

In that same article, Smillie says that the marriage of the oldest electronic media with the newest offers opportunities only dreamed about at the beginning of this decade.(9) As mentioned, more than 1,000 U.S. newspapers are online, and throughout the world the major newspapers in each country are adding to those choices. Spot radio news on the World Wide Web has turned out to be a powerful audience driver. According to BRS Radio, an organization that tracks radio on the internet, the number of stations streaming audio jumped from fewer than 50 in the first quarter of 1996 to more than 700 by October 1997, an increase of more than 1100% in 18 months.(10) Furthermore, the largest growth in internet broadcasting is in international and internet-only stations.(11) To further show the growth of internet broadcasting, in the May 13th, 1998, issue of Radio World, Peter Zollman reports (quoting Peggy Miles, president of Intervox Communications, a webcasting consulting firm) that the number of radio stations worldwide with a presence on the internet is 5,281. Of those, 1252 are streaming audio or webcasts.(12)

Additionally, the internet can be used to send video to the computer. Radio and television both can benefit from this ability. For instance, WRLT-FM in Nashville, Tennessee, offers QuickTime movies of recent studio guests to its internet listeners. Another example is Duna Television. This Hungarian public television station is streaming the entire daily newscasts—both video and audio together—over the World Wide Web for Hungarians around the world.(13)

Think of that--a transitional Central European country that just eight years ago freed itself from the bonds of communism now has a television station leading the way into the new millennium using the latest cutting-edge technology of the internet. And by the way, I learned of Duna Television's streaming of daily newscasts through a message I received from a Hungary-oriented e-mail list.

Furthermore, with the introduction of WebTV, we are now seeing the convergence of television and the World Wide Web. According to an article in the September 29, 1997, edition of Newsweek, "WebTV is at the vanguard of a trend...: the immaculate union of the television and the PC.�(14) The possibilities available through the idea of convergence prompted Bill Gates to purchase WebTV, an untried novelty at the time, for $425 million. A number of major players in the television industry, including Sony, Mitsubishi, and Philips, are manufacturing versions of the original WebTV.(15)

Convergence also means the possibility of being able, while watching a commercial, to click on an icon and find local dealers; or while watching a program, to click on a star and find out the actor's or actress' name and be provided with a short clip of the person's best-known work. While overall, television use of the internet has been slow to develop, it stands on the verge of a possible explosion in convergence as soon as the arrival of the new millennium. Indeed, internet television is destined to become increasingly important.

Finally, the technology of the internet provides print and electronic media outlets the ability to stay in touch with their publics wherever they may be. In doing so, one sees for the first time a true convergence of localism, globalization, and technology, to produce a radically new and different future. Through this convergence one sees a new meaning of localism--a localism that reaches into all corners of the earth; a localism unencumbered by distance, weather, terrain, or even governments. This convergence, then, as it must, produces and enhances localism as a global concept. When technology brings localism and globalism into convergence, then there is a new form of communication, a world communication. No longer will audiences be just the people in the local communities, towns, or cities. Rather, the audiences, the publics, will be everywhere the new technologies reach—which is everywhere.

What then are the challenges for media professionals as we approach this new millennium? First, media professionals—and, increasingly, media educators—will be responsible for defining and redefining the future of the new localism. How one defines localism in the coming era of globalization and new technology will define the future of the media in the new global marketplace of the coming millennium.

The problem is, how does one define what is local when the audience, the public, is no longer a physical neighbor, but a neighbor halfway around the world from the local media outlet? How does one define localism when a newspaper or a radio station or television station has more readers, listeners, or viewers online in other countries than it has in its traditional local market? When local and global merge, localism is irrevocably changed. The whole concept of news must now change as international and world news becomes increasingly more important than the traditional local news, because the audience may now be Spaniards in Spain, Hispanics along the Texas/Mexican border, or Spanish-language students in Russia. All may find the online media outlets to be exciting and of interest.

In such a situation, journalists may find themselves torn between reporting the traditional local news of the day and the national/international news the larger portion of the audience which is online wishes to read about, hear, or see. Suppose, as some would have us believe, online newspapers replace traditional newspapers or become a regular substitute for them. Suppose radio and television stations on the internet become viable alternatives to radios and TVs for large segments of the population. Journalists will have to develop ways of providing traditional local news to their traditional constituents, while at the same time providing the news and information that is important to their "new" audiences. How well they satisfy the needs of both constituencies could well mean the success or failure for any 21st century media outlet.

If journalists refuse to or procrastinate in making such decisions, they may be made for them by others—editors, corporate publishers, general managers, etc., who are motivated more by revenue figures than by journalism, because, in reality, the marketplace has also changed. No longer are media outlets limited to advertising those products, goods, and services that are a part of the traditional local market. Rather, the whole of the world is open to the sales staff. With the ability to operate worldwide comes the opportunity to advertise worldwide. Ted Turner realized this when he took the low-rated television station he had just bought in Atlanta, Georgia, and placed its programming on a satellite in 1976. The rest, of course, is history—the development of a worldwide media empire that would include CNN, CNN International, CNN Headline News, Turner Network Television, Turner Classic Movies, and the Cartoon Network, just to name a few of his ventures.

However, there are other challenges that lie ahead for journalists in this new era of global/local and of new technologies. As media industries transcend national borders, governments will attempt to regulate the unregulatable. This puts journalists in the precarious position of running afoul of a variety of media laws throughout the world. What is permissible, even encouraged in one country might be reason for attack in another. Journalists could become victims of laws of other governments and have to defend themselves in international courts. On the other hand, could journalists escape retribution from government officials or others by claiming that the material included in online versions of the media outlets are not for local consumption, and thus not covered by local statutes?

Finally, how do journalists handle, in addition to the potential legal controversies, the ethical controversies that likely will arise? Journalists will likely find themselves needing to be more sensitive to religious and cultural considerations of their global/local audiences, especially if the global/local audience is larger than the traditional local audience.

In conclusion, to realize and redefine localism within this global marketplace opens the best of the new and exciting opportunities in the coming millennium. Due to the constant drop in the price of computers, along with the increasing power of those same computers, purchasing the hardware and software for webcasting is within the reach of many, if not most, media outlets throughout the world. As more and more media outlets provide their products through the internet, more will be expected by their various publics. Convergence marries technology with localism to create "global-local" audiences that heretofore have not existed. How the media professional of the future comes to grips with the new technologies available and how to put them to their best use for all concerned may truly be the dominant challenge of the new century. 

About Frank Aycock

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