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ONLY IN DADE | The Good | The Bad | The Funny

How a wacky Instagram account became a go-to news source

How a wacky Instagram account became a go-to news source

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — To experience Miami-Dade County in all its beautiful and messy glory, let the Instagram account Only in Dade be your guide.

On any given day, the account serves its 1.3 million followers scandalous, charming and ridiculous videos of everyday life in South Florida: A shirtless guy showing off the faux six-pack he shaved into his furry stomach. A park employee lovingly beseeching swimmers in half-broken Spanish to exit the water — “Calabaza, calabaza, todo el mundo para su casa!” (Sort of the Spanish equivalent of, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”) Shocking cellphone video of the rapper Tekashi69 getting beaten bloody in a fitness center restroom. A pod of dolphins gleefully playing in a boat’s wake. And many, many crazy, crazy nights out at the clubs.
Followers supply much of the content — including sunsets and car wrecks, the sweet and the unsavory. “Only in Dade!” some aspiring contributors shout, as they pull out their phones to capture a real-life spectacle — a courtroom brawl, a truck swerving through traffic — that they’re certain will shoot to viral fame. 

Then the conversation turned to something much more serious: Police that week confirmed that the director of the Miami-Dade Police Department had attempted suicide, and a tipster supposedly had a video related to the emerging story.

“What do you guys think?” asked Lenny Carter, co-CEO of Only in Dade. “Should we get into this?”

“I think it’s too soon,” said Shanut Anaut, Only in Dade’s co-founder.

“It’s just a rumor at this point,” Carter concluded, after listening to the staff talk it through. Then he turned to one of the Instagram account’s managers, Jennifer Jensen. “Get the footage anyway, Jenny. But I say no.” In the end, the skepticism was warranted; the video wasn’t clear.

It sounded more like the kind of measured debate you might hear in anewsroom — and maybe not one you’d expect of a lifestyle Instagram account that regularly posts comedy sketches and interviews with tipsy partygoers.
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And yet a funny thing happened in the course of Only in Dade’s rapid rise as the region’s hottest online time-killer: It inadvertently became a source of local news. Its wacky, endearing or alarming videos also get picked up by the local news, forming the basis of more traditional reports. And along the way, Only in Dade’s staff — a team that largely came up through marketing, digital production or comedy — have learned some of the basics of producing news. “There has been a lot of trial and error,” Carter said.
Now, what started as a meme page a decade ago has become a media company that inks deals with local hospitals, UFC fighters and colleges, and catapulted one staffer to “Saturday Night Live” fame. Last year, Emilio Estefan — the multimillionaire record producer known as the godfather of Miami — purchased half of the company with grand visions for expansion into film, comedy and live events.
So, could this be the future of local news?
Alot of communities across the country — D.C., Maui, New Orleans — have an Instagram account like this.

“They start as a joke account for people to make fun of or rant about things that frustrated them, or they’re bored and want to have fun,” said Nikki Usher, a University of San Diego media professor and researcher of social media and journalism. “And then they accidentally start to get credibility because they’re so authentic.”

They’re arising as newspapers disappear, television ratings decline and younger audiences tune out the news. And they’re cause for still more hand-wringing among journalism purists, and those griping about “bundles” — serious news organizations offering lighter fare such as games alongside news reports to lure an audience. What does it mean if reporting isn’t enough, that you also have to entertain?

But consider what newspapers used to be. They weren’t produced by professionals as we think of them today. Early American newspapers were mostly filled with dispatches sent by letter writers — the original “user-submitted content.” Postmasters who ran their own papers had a competitive advantage, because they had access to so many people’s letters; some would just print the contents.

It took a long time to get to the kind of sober, straight-down-the-middle media that came to dominate the 20th-century news market, produced by professionals and delivered in the voices of Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and other people who were almost invariably White and male.

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But for centuries before all that, news wasn’t as polite, or as dull. Papers were hyperpartisan before publishers realized they could make more money by practicing “objectivity.” News included lighter fare, gossip or even made-up stories. (After all, people were paying to be entertained.) The platonic ideal of a newspaper (or news outlet) never existed. “Most journalism historians will say you can’t have this unbroken line of evolution up to the present. Instead, you have periods in the past where journalism of the period was distinctive for that period,” said David Sloan, professor emeritus at the University of Alabama and founder of the American Journalism Historians Association. Whatever upheaval society underwent — cultural, political, industrial — was reflected back in its news.