Journeying is a best practice for hyperlocal journalism. Journeying reporters read the religions of the city like James Curley on steroids. The street-smart, 4-time mayor of Boston was unbeatable because he knew Boston like the lines on his hand.
Hyperlocal journalism gained popularity a few years ago as a way of using online news media tools to create journalism closer to the audience thereby circumventing and out-competing the big industrial age daily news media. The local focus meant fewer staff and the online vehicle also cut costs as well as making it possible to do more innovative reports. The hype was that the nimble hyperlocal ships would thoroughly outmaneuver the slow, overly-built Armada of the old-line print media.
However, several of the hyperlocal attempts failed because they actually were too much like the past. AOL’s Patch was a network of hyperlocal sites throughout the nation. The drawback is that the template and strategies were implemented from AOL headquarters. The results were too often simply traditional journalism gussied up into local form. Patch has struggled. Lately, there have been some more successful attempts by digital natives like multi-site online media like DNAInfo (averages 2 million unique visitors per month) , Daily Voice in Westchester and Connecticut (535,000 unique visitors/month), and Corner News Media (250,000 unique visitors/users in July 2014). Last spring, A Journey through NYC religions stumbled into a story that illustrated one way to be a successful hyperlocal news media.
When the gas explosion hit the East Harlem community on March 12th, killing eight, injuring sixty and destroying a Pentecostal church, we already knew the nooks and crannies as well as every religious site in the area. We had visited them all. We don't usually cover breaking news stories, but we felt some obligation to the people whom we had met and interviewed. When many reporters puzzled over what kind of church was destroyed (twitter guesses were Jehovah Witness and Seventh Day Adventist, neither of which was correct), we felt pushed into speaking up for the people in the blasted neighborhood though we don't usually cover breaking news stories..
We already had photos of the church when the neighborhood was breathing and relaxing in the summer as well as phone numbers of the leaders of the church and various other religious leaders within a nine block radius. After the initial news, we broke story after story, placing the only reporter allowed in the police command room and in the funeral for a mother and her daughter killed in the accident. When the police barred our reporter from the funeral, one of the mourners came out, put his arm around our reporter and said, “She’s with us.” Journey is exactly that: “with the people.” And they remembered that we were there when no one else was. We remembered how they opened their doors to us, gave us drinks in the hot summer, and freely recounted their stories about the neighborhood. We are not necessarily the best reporters on a story, but often we are the only reporters to have visited a particular house of worship.
A journey through the streets and alleyways of New York City makes sure that we don’t miss too many of the religious sites, particularly ones that are important to groups of believers who are outside of the experience of most New Yorkers. In Jackson Heights there is an alleyway that runs along the train tracks. At times the road is so narrow that you wonder if a car can get through. The worry about meeting someone head-on or having to backup several hundred yards increases by the moment as one creeps down the path. A Journey got through without getting jammed and discovered a little cove of a parking lot fronted by Chinese stores and one Taoist temple.
Further, it wasn’t any ordinary temple; it was a temple of people from the big Chinese city of Wenzhou, perhaps the first big temple of that people here in New York City.
Why, you might ask, is the temple so significant to the rest of New Yorkers? You may have noticed in the news media this summer that the Chinese government destroyed a Christian cathedral and have been battling believers over attempts to tear down more religious sites. The epicenter of the fight is Wenzhou, a city so religious that not even the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s was able to shut down all the religious sites like it did in the rest of China. Chinese Christians even call this city, the Chinese Jerusalem. The secular rulers, like the secularists of revolutionary France, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, detest independent religious groups because they are afraid that the churches and temples will be beacons of democracy. They are wary of the first freedom of the U.S. Bill of Rights which is religious freedom-- in other words, freedom of conscience. With its occasional spies among the local religious groups, the Chinese government even fears that religious sites in New York could become doorways of democratic influence overseas.
There are many other nooks and crannies of religious life that continually surprise journeyers. Did you know that the Catholic church has several Grottos of Lourdes in the city that are modeled after the famous one in France? Probably, most non-Catholics don’t know this. Some of the grottos, like the one in Bushwick, are hidden in non-descript alleyways. Some like the one in the Bronx are spectacular scenes set within an ordinary neighborhood.
There is also a church in the back of a barbershop in Staten Island, another in the back of the bookstore in Flatbush, house synagogues in Washington Heights, an outpost of ancient Egyptian religion in the middle of Brooklyn, north Russian shamanism (which uses an East Village garden where couples can meet by wandering around at certain times of the year), a carwash-pizza parlor in Queens that prays over every pizza delivered and every car washed, a Bible study in Jesus’ Auto Body Shop in south Central Bronx, and a scattering of new Japanese religious establishments in Manhattan and Queens.