Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why local newspapers are in trouble

The chairs of the Chambers of Commerce of two nearby counties are appearing on TV ads around here. They are stressing the importance for me to buy local, because buying local keeps local jobs here. The two counties represented a very wide region. Presumably, the businessman from the county further away from me would want me to buy products from his county, even if it didn't meet my other concerns in the marketplace, such as price, value, quality, sustainable manufacturing processes, labor issues, etc. If he's going to appeal to my self-interest, it doesn't work, because I don't want to get a job which requires a one-hour commute to the far corner of that other county. The appeal doesn't resonate with me at all.

I think the same problem happens with local or regional news outlets, whether it be radio or print. Yes, it's probably pretty hard for these outlets to compete with international news organizations in providing detailed coverage of international events. Thus, they concentrate on "local news." The problem as I see it is that they, like the Chambers of Commerce described above, really want me to care deeply about folks within a 90 mile region of my home, but practically draw a line in the sand at that border. They stress the importance of international news by telling me how it affects people within 90 miles of my home.

Case in point. I remember during American involvement in the Bosnia War, it seemed as though there were more coverage of local residents returning as soldiers from the war than the causes and effects of the war itself. It's like, "You should care about Bosnia, because someone 90 miles away from you had to go fight in it." (Frankly speaking, if the guy lived on the other side of the river from me, what makes him so special? I cared about that war because humans had to fight and because humans suffered in it, not because of its effects on inhabitants of some artificial boundary drawn at the subscriber base of the paper.)

A baseball player had a drug scandal. The front page of my local paper had headlines: local fans react! The lifestyle section had a long article about how someone born 90 miles from my house had worked with some of the music business' hottest stars! My public radio station's news reporting seemed to follow the same ambulance chasing-- it's important because it affected someone in our region.

To a similar degree, the same thing happened with NBC's coverage of women's Olympic volleyball matches. NBC showed us every single instance of the American ladies' touching their hair, but we barely saw the faces of the international women they played against.

I tried to express the problem in graphical form below. I'm guessing the average Joe has more concern for his family than for the huddled masses of faraway countries, with concern dropping off steadily as the persons become more distant. I myself probably have a twisted sense of interest, in that my geographical patriotism stops at the borders of my school district, but I have a great concern for the poor of the planet. The local and regional news outlets, however, have a degree of coverage that doesn't match either of our interest curves. That is why I believe they are financially in trouble. I've not noticed when my local paper subscription expired, I've lost interest in supporting the news programs of local public radio.

Don't get me wrong. I deeply care about what happens to the country, I want it to prosper. But my interest-curve is that I want the country to do right and be well because of the effect it has on my family and the huddled masses of the planet, NOT exclusively because of the effect it has on folks 90 miles away from me. I think the long term economic and security interest of my nation, my family, and those 90 miles away from me lies in the overall degree of misery on the planet. Stated another way, I find that a lifeboat philosophy to be not only immoral but ultimately self-defeating in terms of seeking self-interest.

Regardless of your political views about "the market", ultimately businesses have to meet the demands of the market, or die. I propose that there is a disconnect between the coverage focus of local media and the actual interests of consumers. I wonder if the coverage model they've adopted has to do with following the wrong-headed advice of "focus groups" rather than common sense.

Here's my proposal for their success. The local media outlets may continue to send out reporters only within their traditional 90-mile radius. But they have to change the approach to their coverage completely. Instead of reporting on how local residents have been affected by or played a hand in international events, they need to show how local events have an international impact. Imagine if you were to take an American history professor from China, a French labor activist, and an African manufacturer, and sent them to rural upstate New York. Tell them that they have to fill up an hour (or a few pages ) of copy on things that happened in that little town on that day that would be of interest to the world. That is a paper I'd surely miss if my subscription were to run out.

Think globally, report locally, is my proposal for newspaper success.

ADDENDUM (04/02):
The reporting in my local paper underscored this problem all the more poignantly recently. There was a special election for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in New York's 20th congressional district. The district is an unusually long and twisted one-- you should click on that link to see the map. Anyway, the district apparently covers one county in the readership of my local paper, and many other counties. The paper had an in-depth story comparing the voting results in this election versus the 2008 one. They showed us how, on a town by town basis, the results were different. The only problem was that they ignored all the counties of the 20th district but their own! They seemed to think we were only interested in our own county! If you really wanted to understand the voting demographics as it would have an effect on the representation in congress, I think you'd want to know how all the towns in the district voted. But, no, the local paper's interest stopped at its circulation boundaries. I cannot imagine how many people would have an interest-cliff that would coincide with the paper: either they don't care about towns other than their own, or they might care about a region larger than the congressional district. That is why local papers are dying.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lent's over and I can respond to this. As a newly reminted local newspaperman, I generally agree with what you've posted in sum. I might be a little more skewed toward local than you are. There always has been a tension in the news biz, especially the local news biz, between reporting and advocacy. To me, where news outlets of all sizes have failed is in leaning too heavily toward advocacy. You might guess that I lean more heavily toward reporting -- we report, you decide, as Fox says. However, within the community (meaning "core area" or "circulation area") I can lean a little more to advocacy because we at the local paper are members of the community, and, after having presented all facets of an issue fairly can also fairly recommend a course of action as one humble community institution. I am very much in favor of staying local, and somewhat in favor of local advocacy. That does not mean, tho, that events outside should not impact a news outlet, because, plainly, events outside impact our local audience. I think we in the hyper-local markets fail when we do not provide adequate context within our coverage about why our coverage is important. It's irresponsible to report on soldiers (a lot of them) going to and fro between here and the Mideast without building in war context, for example: What's Mosul going to be like for the 140th Transport Battalion? Do I know anyone who knows anyone, American or local, who lives or works in Mosul? Can I print some of those views in this local paper? That's one example. Another more obvious one for my area is old-vs.-new energy. We long have suffered whenever Washington hiccuped over coal policy or Japan decided it wanted cleaner coal that what we have to offer. What will be the impact of nuclear energy research in Oak Ridge and the TVA be for us and the nation? Why might it matter to us to be willing to give up some of our "viewshed" and to sacrifice a few birds to build a wind farm on a mountaintop where there's always a breeze? How will the closing here of a regional and international ministry for the hungry impact city, county, 2 states and several countries? Do we know people who eat this food?

However, we also know that people love to see their names and kids' names and photos and sports scores, etc., in the local paper. Even the internet does not have the impact of a newspaper in a display rack on Saturday morning with a BIIIGGG picture of Joe and Mary Blow's kid scoring the winning TD the night before. This is why unless it's a really big layoff or closing or a really noteworthy person coming to town, we always will run a hyperlocal story on A1 above the fold, because that's what folks in the checkout line are looking for. We want them to see that first.

The example you gave of reporting on 1 county in a congressional district was a good one, and no responsible paper would have gone to all that trouble of parsing data without touching significantly on the rest of the district, even if it was outside the circulation area. Especially in a gerrymandered district, those outlying counties still area places where locals travel, recreate, do business, commute through.

Papers that fail consider larger context risk losing serious and semiserious readers. They won't migrate to the internet, because what they want isn't there, either. They'll just get bored and sleep in. And though rack sales drive a lot of business, future business is always built on the serious readers and the people they can persuade to read the paper too.