A Nieman Lab article by Joshua Benton, “As giant platforms rise, local news is getting crushed,” captures many of the things I’ve been thinking about since coming to the News-Topic more than two and a half years ago, but I struggled all day to articulate it, beyond simply agreeing.
The underlying situation: The collapse of advertising in recent years, and the unwillingness of newspaper companies to be straight with readers about what they are actually paying for, led to the collapse of staff and features, the unbundling of the something-for-everyone package that newspapers grew over decades to become. That package of varied news, features, comics, puzzles and anything else you could think of grew in order to attract the most readers possible, thereby creating a juicy target for advertisers. When advertisers began peeling away, newspapers unilaterally dropped parts of the bundle, gambling they could hold onto more readers than each of those dropped parts attracted. (Personally, I would have tried asking readers to vote with their cash and pay for what they want rather than trying to convince them to keep paying for what I unilaterally decided without any input that they needed, but I’m a writer, so what do I know?)
What we have doubled down on is “the franchise,” local news. But what “local news” means varies. Some readers want the local high school sports to get blanket coverage, and they couldn’t care less about anything else — in fact once their own kids leave school they will lose interest even in local sports. Some just want features on local people and places. Name anything — someone wants it. But almost no one wants just exactly, and only, what the reduced staff produces, or can produce. Yet they can find a good bit of what they do want in various other places, here and there, mostly for free.
And so even the hardcore traditional readers, the ones so committed to local news that the industry has virtually staked its survival on them, question their commitment. Some peel away. Sometimes we get lucky and have a story that prompts a reader to call us and say that story convinced them to renew for another year.
The thing is, though, we could double or triple our readership and we still could be in trouble.
In the back of my head as I read Benton’s article was another, by Clay Shirky, that predicted the kicking out of the last leg keeping the stool standing, Sunday advertising inserts. Whether or not Shirky is right that they will collapse, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that inserts are in steep decline.
So where are we? “Everyone” says that local news is an inherent good, necessary for a functioning electorate and good governance. And yet is there a market for it? In big metro markets, it seems, maybe there is, if only because there are enough online eyeballs to be drawn. But in a town of 18,000? A county of 80,000? Or places with fewer yet?
What if where we are heading is a time when the survival of local journalism parallels the way that small markets first gained electricity, except instead of gaining something it’s the only way a small market can keep something? That is, either the government does it, or local residents agree it’s necessary and pool their resources.
Here in Caldwell County, for instance, the entire region was too sparsely populated to get privately held electric companies to extend electric service. To get power up into the hills, what is now Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. began when farmers got together and agreed, with help from the government, to help foot the cost themselves, collectively.
During the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal transformed the “Tennessee Valley” — the name given to a multi-state region of 9 million people, failing farms and depleted forests — through one of the largest hydropower construction programs in history.
Caldwell County’s government already runs its own sort of news service. There is a local-access channel with regularly scheduled shows produced by a county-paid team, some of it CSPAN-style broadcasts of government meetings, some of it shows related to news, some of it features. The county public information officer routinely puts out not just press releases but ready-to-run news stories, not always quite what a mainstream news editor would OK but often as good, and they show up on news websites throughout western North Carolina.
There are also locally a couple of sites that fill, in a “good enough” kind of minimal way, local news needs, including a website and associated Facebook page devoted to police scanner traffic and a mom-and-pop startup site with almost no original reporting but every news release and public announcement in the area as well as aggregation of various stories from the web. OH, and free local obituaries!
A government news service, of course, produces news that the government approves. A startup site may survive, but financial results for such sites even in metro areas are mixed so far. I don’t know how many in rural areas have been tried or how they are doing. Even sites in metros that make enough to survive can collapse when one person gets a serious illness.
Could the solution be a cooperative news startup? It would be a membership model, like public radio. Unlike the daily paper, or news websites selling subscriptions, it would not be sold explicitly as a product but as a communal necessity. You wouldn’t pay for what you get every day but for what the existence of the news service means for the good of the community over the long run.
The difference between journalism now and electricity then, of course, is no one had electricity in the early 20th century, and everyone wanted it. It brought lights at night, fans to move the stifling summer air, power to pump water up a hill. In contrast, everyone now has had journalism, ample helpings of it, for many years. It brings both Watergate exposure and Kim Kardashian, bringing justice for some who are wrongfully imprisoned but also fame to despicable people. It’s an open question how many people, having never faced the kinds of things that people in authoritarian countries face when there is no independent press, believe journalism is something they need.