Thinking about the problem of local news from the supply side
This is spot-on, @dicktofel. The value added of Local News is precisely that, local. The greatest destruction at the hands of hedge fund owners is the ghost newspaper largely devoid of original local content, rather than the creation of new news deserts devoid of newspapers all together. The best way to make money after all is to publish a cheap and cheesy product with little original local content rather than none at all. Your column is a reminder that it’s called “Local News” for a reason.
I don't read the local paper for stories from AP, but for local news. So this makes sense. The HS paper I advise leans into this. I tell my student-reporters that we can't outdo big national news outlets for national or international news, but they'll never know your town and school as well as you do. So tell that story.
Brilliant, Richard. I’ve been saying this for 20 years. 🙄
Excellent column, and something many local weekly papers that never had the AP “crutch” figured out long ago - one reason many are surviving while the dailies around them struggle.
Yes, a thousand times yes. I, too, have been banging this drum.
As you point out, one of the advantages local digital startups like ours have is that we're completely focused on truly local news. Our experience – and that of our peers – very much contradicts your speculation about local news losing its salience. People care very much about what's happening in their city.
I suspect part of the salience problem is that too many people use "local" very loosely. If you're a legacy metro paper covering a multi-county area, people in city A don't care at all about the schools or the city council in city B. (And I'm not even touching our industry's tendency to refer to state-wide organizations like Texas Tribune or CalMatters as local!)
The name of the game for the hedgies at this point is managed decline. Slurp up as much profit as possible while keeping (inevitable) print circ declines low enough to keep the game going until they've realized a nice return. Wire copy and shared state/regional copy serves that purpose well by keeping costs down and giving readers something of nominal value during their morning coffee. The main thing driving this is habit: the print circ remaining at this point is comprised of people who are hooked on their newspaper routine. It would be foolish to mess with that by doing away with an entire category of content that many if not most people expect and value. At this point, there's little question that print is going to go away at some point -- finding a print newspaper reader under 40 is like finding an 8-track enthusiast under 40. The more interesting question, I think, is what happens to the newspaper brands after the hedgies have bled them dry and finally killed the print product.
The brands/websites almost certainly will get sold -- the financial guys don't want to hang on to them after that, but there's still value there. Then do the buyers double down on local news and establishing reader connections, or will the new owners go for more of a web traffic arbitrage play that relies on cheap wire copy clicks supported by brand/SEO value driving programmatic ad revenue? My guess is that it will be a mix of the two, depending on the market.
I disagree with the idea that local newspapers should eliminate or significantly reduce non-local content. If I pay for a newspaper, I think it’s reasonable for me to expect it to provide me state, national, and international coverage. I don’t and won’t watch TV news. I listen to NPR, but it’s not enough and most of its stories are brief and superficial. Subscriptions to national newspapers cost money; you act like anyone can access them for free. I'm not willing to rely on my Facebook feed for state, national, and international news. Moreover, when newspapers go all-local, it usually means they increase their productivity expectations of staffers, often to unreasonable degrees. That news hole has to be filled with something. When that happens, the quality of local coverage deteriorates. I was offered a reporting job at an all-local daily in Oklahoma and it expected reporters to produce four stories a day. I didn't take the job for that reason. It's also naive to think that by cancelling wire services, newspapers are going to increase their spending on local staff. Newspapers usually cancel wire services because they are struggling to stay afloat, so no such reallocation is likely to occur for most. TNS also offers a cost-effective alternative to the AP. Finally, if more and more newspapers cancel their Associated Press subscriptions, the AP will be forced to significantly cut its staff, which will hurt the coverage of state, national, and international news.
Great concept, but it's not practical. Cutting wires and syndicates would save enough to hire a few reporters. Those reporters' output stretched over five, six or seven days wouldn't fill the newshole -- not even close, at times. What then with no wire material? Cut the newshole to match local content? Readers will howl for sure. Maybe if news orgs go all digital, but the idea remains problematic until.
This is hardly a new idea. I took a small daily in western Canada mostly all local (some national sports and a national syndicated political columnist) in the last 1960s. Circulation climbed. It stayed that way long after I left. The paper died as a daily a few years ago, not because of a lack of local news or readers, but of a lack advertising. Readers were reluctant to make up the difference and wouldn’t pay for news behind a paywall. The ‘newspaper’ business is dead. Local news as an electronic operation — perhaps non-profit with perhaps municipal partners or patrons might be a second life.