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Home > Topics & Tools > Digital Media > Innovations > How spatial journalism can fill an empty space

How spatial journalism can fill an empty space

A digital media scholar discusses its practical applications and promise.

By Catherine Payne, content producer, NAA

Location, location, news. At the intersection of geolocation and news, there are new opportunities for storytelling.

A digital media scholar is exploring how a form of journalism that incorporates location is leading to new roads in the digital media metropolis.

"Spatial journalism can be defined as the kinds of information that incorporate a place, space and/or location (physical, augmented and virtual) into the process and practice of journalism," says Amy Schmitz Weiss, an associate professor of journalism in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University. "It's an emergent kind of journalism that allows us to explore new ways of storytelling and informing communities about the world around them."

She answered NAA's questions about the potential of spatial journalism via e-mail.

 Amy Schmitz Weiss

Question: What sparked your interest in spatial journalism?

Answer: My interest in spatial journalism came about several years ago when I received a grant from the AEJMC (Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication) through the Knight Foundation to build a mobile news app with my journalism students and computer science students that geolocated news events on campus using the Ushahidi platform. We launched the mobile news app in six months called AzteCast in 2012. Till this day, the mobile app continues to thrive on our campus and provides a way for our campus community to be informed about the news events around them through geolocation.

From that project, I did a study "Exploring News Apps and Location-Based Services on the Smartphone," that was a content analysis of the top 100 media outlets in the country (newspaper, radio and broadcast) of their mobile apps to see if they were offering geolocated news and none of them were -- they only used the functionality for weather and traffic. As part of this research, I also did a survey of young adults and found that they consume geolocated news and services and seek it out -- yet news organizations are not fulfilling that need among young news consumers.

From this work, I started thinking about how much we need to look at journalism today from a different lens where mobile, geographic space and news can intersect. I started working on the concept that led to this research.

Q: What are some practical applications of it?

A: The practical applications are mentioned in the study, but we can see how much spatial journalism can allow a news consumer to be more informed about the world around them -- by their neighborhood, their city block of news that knows where they are located via their mobile app and provide them that information based on the place where they are located. Nowadays, it's no surprise that we use our mobile phones to help us find a good restaurant nearby to get a bite to eat, to locate a dry cleaner service in our area, to know how to get from point A to point B via a map, etc. The importance of location-based services is growing through the use of the mobile device, and the news industry has the opportunity to provide a new kind of news offering that goes beyond targeting news by zip code or zoning.

In addition, this can provide a great service to communities that undergo a disaster or crisis to allow them to mobilize accordingly when the news is provided to them where they are located.

Aside from the news consumer, it gives the news organization (the reporter, editor, etc.) a new lens to understand their community -- we don't give enough thought to location and what it means when covering a community. Location is not just an address. It opens up a new way for us to understand how our public views their community around them and how the reporter may notice the gaps in their coverage of their community and how they can bring light to new places and spaces in their towns, cities, states, etc.

Q: Are there any concerns about spatial journalism that news organizations should be aware of?

A: Well, yes, there is an ongoing debate about the privacy and data concerns over location-based services and content ownership as I mention in the study. However, consumers do have the opportunity to opt out of these services on their mobile device if they so wish. Current trends do show that location-based services is a growing industry that the public is seeking and wanting -- it's predicted to be a $13.5 billion industry by 2015, according to Gartner.

Q: How do you foresee spatial journalism evolving?

A: I think we see it evolving every day around us. As new services and mobile apps are created -- we can see the potential of how geolocation and news can be combined. Just a few weeks ago, Nieman had a piece about a mobile news app from NBC that is experimenting with geolocated news alerts. I think we are just at the beginning of seeing storytelling and news reporting in this light.

Q: If newspapers want to learn more about spatial journalism, what is a good resource?

A: If they want to learn more about it, they can read the study -- it presents examples of how it can be implemented. They can check out my website -- spatialjournalism.com, and I am happy to talk with any news organization or journalist that wants to explore this concept further.

Q: Anything else that you'd like to add?

A: Journalism in the 21st century has the opportunity to transform and evolve in exciting ways. Spatial journalism can be one form that can help us to see how we see ourselves and make sense of the world around us.

To see Schmitz Weiss' report "Place-Based Knowledge in the Twenty-First Century: The creation of spatial journalism," click here.

First Published: July 09, 2014