Time for Local Newspapers to Go All-Local?
Thinking about the problem of local news from the supply side
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
I spent three fascinating days late last month at the Local News Summit convened by the Lenfest Institute and Aspen Digital. It was joyous to again see so many people who share a passion for the news business in one space; even more important, it was a privilege to again get to think together in the way one can most effectively do so-- in person.
One of the arguments I found most compelling in the discussion was that, as many local news outlets have cut back and retreated over the last 17 years, national news has increasingly filled the resulting information vacuum, exacerbating and perhaps accelerating the polarization that is so warping our politics and our society. (As pointed out in a recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper which my friend and client Jim Friedlich of Lenfest called to my attention, the hedge fund owners who have come to dominate local newspaper ownership disproportionately cut the local component of news in papers they buy.)
The point about national news filling a vacuum neatly turns on its head something I have worried about for some years now, that local news is losing its salience. I have previously attributed this, in at least some measure, to the nationalizing effects of social media, and I am sure that remains a significant factor. But while attention to social media weakens demand for local news, it’s also important to acknowledge the impact of reduced supply.
As I thought about this point, it occurred to me that we ought to be more seriously considering what legacy local news organizations can do about the supply issue.
One thing might be to try to get out of the business of distributing (and certainly of producing) national news themselves. That is to say, perhaps it has come time for legacy local news outlets to eliminate as much of the national content they provide as they can, and to press to cut the rest of it as quickly as feasible. The resources thus freed up—money and space-- could then be re-deployed to produce more of the local content that, in many communities, only they can provide.
I recognize that this transformation will not be able to be accomplished overnight. Many readers, especially older ones, came to these outlets—mostly local newspapers—long ago, and have a deeply entrenched expectation that they will supply national as well as local news.
But there is no doubt that most editors and publishers could lean much harder than they now are in the direction of local-only news. This would make their publications more distinctive, which should be a key objective, and less duplicative of what people have already learned elsewhere.
In considering this, we ought to be asking ourselves some tough questions:
How many readers who are really interested in it, for instance, are getting their news of the war in Ukraine from a morning local paper rather than cable or broadcast news, national newspapers or by way of phone alerts or social media? My guess is very few. If that’s the case, does it really make sense for Ukraine to dominate local front pages to the extent it now is, or could this display space be devoted to exclusive local pieces?
How many subscriptions really hinge on syndicated national columnists, or national entertainment or sports coverage? If again the answer is not many, might the costs of these features be better devoted to rebuilding local staff, and perhaps attracting new readers?
What is the return on the cost of national or syndicated press wires or photos compared to what would happen if those costs were also cut in favor of more distinctive local news?
More generally, are our principal display spaces— the front page of the newspaper, the home page of the website or app— effectively conveying what is unique and compelling about our content? Can they instead be employed to get readers to increasingly think of legacy local news outlets as just that, local? Doing so would have the added benefit of making them more competitive with the newer digital entrants that are likely to be their key future competitors.
The legacy publications furthest along on the transition from print to digital— including the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Boston Globe and the Philadelphia Inquirer— have also made the most progress on taking these lessons to heart, especially in their online editions. But there is more to be done, notably in print, and particularly in the run of legacy publications where the transition is less advanced. Again, unfortunately, this is most true among the papers with rapacious owners— which, right now, is most of them.
Print circulation, of course, continues to fall rapidly, and fairly uniformly across the papers run better and less well. We are now, or soon will be, at the point where it will be in publishers’ interest to accelerate this shift to digital, but only to the extent subscribers can be retained as paying customers online.
Making products more distinctive and more compelling is a critical piece of doing this. Deepening a focus on local news, and trumpeting it loudly, is one way to help.
 There is a fundamental difference here between legacy local news outlets and more recent start-ups. The former have accustomed their readers to receiving national news, and may, for commercial reasons, not be able to disengage from it as quickly as would be optimal. The latter have, in almost all cases, never included national news in the package they offer, which not only limits their costs, but gives them an advantage in creating distinctive local products.
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