The daily newspaper isn't dying due to sudden heart failure; it's slowly being eaten away by an
unrelenting cancer of lack of creativity, inflexibility,
occasional corporate arrogance, and 20th (in some
cases even 19th) Century thinking.
—Joe Gandelman blogs at themoderatevoice.com.
In America the conversation about print journalism revolves around The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and a few other national dailies. Those newspapers dominate the Columbia Journalism Review, Howard Kurtz's Media Notes column, and journalism classes at countless universities. One consequence: almost no attention is paid to how Americans get the information they need about local government, for it is only local newspapers that cover things like school board elections and how contracts are handed out at City Hall.
As a beat reporter for a city of 100,000 people, I developed a healthy respect for the mundane tasks of sitting through city council meetings and pouring over city contracts. In my beat, local officials knew an enterprising young reporter was watching them closely. And still I caught them at corruption! In cities without a
local newspaper the corruption is far worse. Public resources are squandered; as a result, budget cuts force things like the layoff of police officers, fewer crossing guards to help kids get to school and a vector society with insufficient resources to eliminate mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus.
Without the watchdog role that local newspapers play, local governance would suffer in similar ways across the nation. Though few citizens seem to realize it, the rise of electronic media via the Internet presents a grave threat to the viability of local newspapers and especially to the oversight function they provide.
Already we recognize the Internet as a force that has transformed the national media. During the last election cycle, blogs helped Howard Dean amass campaign contributions, exposed flaws in a 60 Minutes II story about President Bush and drew mainstream media attention to Vietnam veterans attacking John Kerry. On Sunday morning talk shows, conservative talking heads fantasized about blogs replacing The New York Times. But the national discourse, while correctly perceiving that blogs are transforming national media, miss the bigger story: The New York Times will never be replaced by blogs, but the local newspaper—barring significant changes—may suffer that fate.
Put another way, we will always pay reporters to cover international news, the White House, and celebrity trials. But what if you could get a better version of almost everything your local newspaper gives you for free? If the local gossip, the classifieds, the results of the high school football game, and the test scores at your child's school were all available in a convenient format online, would you still subscribe to the local paper?
Under the media's radar, entrepreneurs in cities around the country are hoping to create hyper-local Web sites that, if successful, will make local newspapers seem primitive. The possibilities are exciting: imagine a Web page where volunteer citizen journalists post on local happenings, staffers run online discussion boards that function like a town meeting, teachers post the list of school supplies for the upcoming year, dozens of bloggers produce content on narrow subtopics of their choice and homeowners share information like the name of a good plumber.
Backfence.com hopes to be one such Web site. Its founder, Mark Potts, posted the following on the journalism blog Press Think: "People care most about news and information about the places, people and things closest to them, but this desire for intensely local (neighborhood-level) information is all but unmet by traditional media. Backfence.com will fill that gap by using blogs, wikis, RSS and other technologies to allow citizens to share community news and information with each other, essentially
unmediated by editors."
Myriad sites like this will spring up over the next decade; most will die, but the few that survive? The most successful models will eat up advertising revenue and kill local newspapers unless they evolve too, embracing the electronic age and innovating to maintain some comparative advantages over their new media competitors.
Unfortunately, most local newspapers are woefully unprepared for such innovation, partly because their publishers don't perceive the risk that new media poses. Of course, there are exceptions. Consider the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina.
"That's precisely the sort of media company the News & Record intends to become," editor John Robinson wrote on his blog. "Creating new content. Serving the public and allowing the public to serve journalism. Building a new
way of doing smart, citizen journalism. More transparency. News as a conversation. We've been having serious, detailed, how-to discussions about all of those things here."
But even newspapers like the News & Record that see the need to innovate face a major hurdle: how to pay for it all while continuing to publish a newspaper.
As Wall Street Journal Online Managing Editor Bill Grueshkin noted in the Online Journalism Review, "The issue of how online sites affect their print counterparts is bubbling steadily beneath the surface, and is set to erupt in the upcoming year or two...the idea that giving away your content doesn't affect print circulation and revenue is becoming too ludicrous for all but the most die-hard proponents of this flat-earth theory to keep promulgating."
Only time will tell what media model will prevail in coming years. But one thing is certain: local newspapers will be very different ten years from now than they are today. Anyone who cares about local government ought to pay close attention to how they evolve. Ideally, they will
use new media innovations to better serve their readers while maintaining the local government oversight function they have traditionally fulfilled. But if local newspapers die, or transform themselves in ways that abandon their oversight function to citizen journalists who haven't any
interest in the mundane tasks of professional journalism, either another entity must replicate their watchdog role, or local government will falter from neglect, an ironic fate if it comes as citizens enjoy more thorough, accessible and useful information about most everything else in their communities.