Howard Owens has written a well-researched, well-thought and well-written piece called The Imperative of Localism and Local News that’s worth bookmarking and reading when you have time to digest it.
His main point is that daily newspapers abandoned true local coverage decades ago, and they need to get back to the true roots of localism if they want to reclaim relevance.
It’s not often discussed in newsrooms, but readership declines started at least fifty years before the introduction of Mosaic. Readership peaked in the late 1940s, more than a decade after radio became a commercial force, and years before television reached popular saturation.
And while U.S. newspapers are not alone in facing competition from new technology or changes in social habits, the readership slide is greater in the U.S. than any other industrialized nation, with American papers now ranking low on readership 1,000 adults.
Part of Howard’s argument is that daily newspaper journalists lost touch with the needs and interests of most people in the communities they cover.
In the decades preceding the current “hyperlocal” fad, professional journalists, and the people who manage them, didn’t seem to realize is that “local” is what newspapers did before the “professionals” took over and decided the local flower show was nothing more than a calendar item and real news mean combing over every council member’s campaign contributions.
The theme is reminiscent of a debate I recall from the 1980s: had reporters and editors become too much of a professional class, out of touch with the needs and interests of “ordinary people”? Part of the debate in the ’80s was about pay scales. In the 1950s, the typical reporter in the 1950s made wages on par with a store clerk, but by the late 1980s, the pay of a reporter at many dailies was similar to an entry-level lawyer.
While no one would begrudge anyone upward mobility, was there an unintended consequence? Had journalists lost touch with the public whose interests they supposedly represent? Could a reporter or editor living in the suburbs be expected to understand and cover the lives of those in an inner city?
But that’s a sidetrack off Howard’s argument. His point is that “local” is a concept worth striving for, if you’re a journalist who cares about a community. That’s why he launched The Batavian, an ambitious — yet practical — approach to creating a local online community/journalism resource. His goal is to create a resource that both informs and engages local people about the things they care about.
Sadly, its probably too late to save newspapers, and it’s too late for newspapers to save their communities.
The Web won’t save newspapers. The mere transference of newspaper journalism onto digital devices is a doomed business model.
But the Web can save and revitalize local communities.
If you’re someone who cares about local, please take the time to read Howard’s inspiring essay.
Noted media economist Robert Picard expresses the same frustration I’ve been feeling lately over the recent “coverage” of the financial difficulties of U.S. newspapers. His recent blog post “The Dead and the Dying” sums up the journalists’ hysteria nicely:
Nickle and dime-ing readers like the airlines? Special treatment from the government? Relying on professors to tell us what’s going on? Have journalists gone mad?
In some ways they have. They are panicking at problems in big city media and ignoring the fact that most newspapers are relatively stable and reasonably healthy. The only newspapers experiencing serious competitive difficulties are those in the top 25 markets (about 1 percent of the total) and these are joined in suffering by corporate newspaper companies whose executives have made serious managerial mistakes.
It’s simply mass hysteria.
I don’t know how else to explain the universal underlying assumption in coverage by reporters at all levels, in all media, that newspapers are fatally broken, that the business model doesn’t work, and that the solution is somehow more complicated than this:
Make your product relevant, and necessary, to the lives of local people and advertisers, and adjust your expenses to the realities of the new advertising landscape.
That’s not easy, but it’s not impossible, either.