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Local Interactive Strategies

Local as an operating principle

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.

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March 20, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

3 Comments »

  1. That’s very nice, Joe, thank you.

    Comment by Howard Owens | April 8, 2009 | Reply

  2. I’ve been doing local journalism my entire professional life, first at Chicago Magazine, then briefly at D Magazine in Dallas, and then for 28 years as a critic and columnist at the San Antonio Express-News in my home town. Writing about local neighborhoods, urban design, architecture and general culture, I built a loyal readership among people who were engaged with their community. A lot of other journalists at my newspaper, and the newspaper itself, did, too. But it’s my impression (and, I think, Putnam’s) that the ranks of such community-engaged people have not been growing apace with the metro population, in San Antonio and in most rapidly growing metros, especially in the Sun Belt. The problem as I see it is not a decline of localism, but the relative decline of localities. That newspaper readership peaked in the late 1940s, together with Putnam’s observation that civic engagement peaked in the mid-1960s, is suggestive. Although I won’t blame suburbanization in itself, I think it is clear that the particular type of auto-dominant suburban development that began to emerge after World War II inhibited the knitting together of individual homes, businesses and institutions into neighborhoods, and of neighborhoods into cities. The kinds of relationships that Jane Jabobs described in the diverse, complex, functionally mixed environment of Greenwich Village (and that could also be seen to lesser but significant degree in pre-World War II suburbs) were not possible in the new suburbia of strictly segregated land uses, economically homogeneous residential pods and the difficulty of going anywhere at all without an automobile. The gated subdivisions that emerged in the 1970s exacerbated the problem. Most of the residents of the San Antonio metro now live in subdivisions that are have only a tenuous physical/geographic connection to adjoining subdivisions and the nearest strip mall — much less to the city as a whole and to its historic core. Certainly many suburbanites do manage to participate in the life of the larger city, but such participation is much more difficult and infrequent now than it was when the larger city was close at hand. Not incidentally, the same geographical characteristics that inhibit the sense of community in the post-World War II suburbs have also increased the cost of delivering a physical newspaper. (Trucks have to drive farther to pass the same number of subscribers.)

    But the real reason I came to this site was to ask if you’re the same Joe Michaud who was in my Outward Bound group in 1969.

    Comment by Mike Greenberg | June 11, 2009 | Reply

  3. Mike, thanks for the thoughtful comments. I think you’re right that a lot of what’s affecting newspapers is social dynamics, and somehow journalists need to adapt to these changes.

    Sorry, I’m not that Joe Michaud, but I’m glad the coincidence led you to comment.

    Comment by joemichaud | June 11, 2009 | Reply


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