The death of local news

Local newspapers are dying and that’s horrible for democracy.  Sad map in the N&O back in February:

The Wire’s David Simon on the problem (from a decade ago, but only more relevant now):

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, the award-winning writer and producer launches a tirade against newspaper owners who, he says, showed “contempt for their product” and are now reaping the whirlwind. But he rejects the idea that newspapers should seek ways to embrace the new world of free information, arguing that they must urgently start charging money for content distributed online.

“Oh, to be a state or local official in America over the next 10 to 15 years, before somebody figures out the business model,” says Simon, a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun. “To gambol freely across the wastelands of an American city, as a local politician! It’s got to be one of the great dreams in the history of American corruption.” [emphases mine]

The only hope, Simon insists, is for major news outlets to find a way to collaboratively impose charges for reading online, and to demand fees from aggregators such as Google News, which profit from their journalism. “If you don’t have a product that you’re charging for, you don’t have a product,” he says. “If you think that free is going to produce something that’s as much of a cost centre as good journalism – because it costs money to do good journalism – you’re out of your mind.”

And Alexis Madrigal last week:

But newspaper reporters used to be the backbone of every local journalism ecosystem. Medium- and large-sized cities sometimes had hundreds of them, and their publications’ formats allowed for the day-to-day coverage and investigative explorations that make civic journalism valuable to communities.

In a previous world, perhaps one could imagine that a million bloggers would spring up to fill the void left by all the actual reporting jobs disappearing, but that clearly did not and is not going to happen. The explosion of national digital-only news outlets has come and gone. Many survive, but few do the kind of journalism that local papers did. It’s one thing to tweet from a city council meeting every once in a while, and a whole other thing to cover City Hall for a real newspaper.

There are bright, local, digital-only spots—say, the Voice of San Diego or Berkeleyside—but they are the exceptions, not the rule.

Add it all up and, according to a recent report, 1,300 communities have completely lost local news coverage.

In most places, the news still exists. The paper hits the doorstep. The radio breaks for updates. At 11 o’clock, someone starts talking on the TV about top stories.

But the loss of reporters and editors has hollowed out the coverage. There are fewer and less experienced reporters. Each paper covers a smaller chunk of the region, leading nearly half of Americans to say that their local news doesn’t actually cover their own local area. The editors don’t have a lifetime’s worth of knowledge of the places they’re working.  

Golden-era newspaper journalism had many problems. For example, publishers like the Knowland familywhich ran the Oakland Tribuneused their papers to help them maintain political power. Women and people of color were underrepresented in the journalistic ranks as well as in the pages. (There is a reason that black people developed an entirely separate set of  journalistic institutions.)

Even so, as the local journalistic institutions have fallen, they have not been replaced by something better, but rather nothing at all. And as they die off, many Americans don’t even know it.

This is just bad.  Pay for some good local news damnit!

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to The death of local news

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    When no one is watching local governments, corruption of all kinds is sure to increase. When all the investigative reporting is focused on the national government less is aimed at state governments, even less at county governments, less than that on city governments and even less on big corporations acting locally. This costs the economy and leaves little to”trickle down”.
    It costs the population a lot more than hiring good reporters would but is unseen by the public except at the end of the process when it could become too entrenched and difficult to change.
    Perhaps an exploration of subsidies is in order. Treating newspapers and other news sources as a public utility could work, at least at the local levels.
    If you have a better idea, we need it.

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