Local newspapers are not very likely to disappear anytime soon. Oligopolies, monopolies and all that. It’s why Buffett likes ’em. But would we miss our local newspaper if it went bankrupt, would we end up in a news desert?
I don’t think so. And the reason why is because newspapers are not (and never were) about investigative journalism, the hard stuff only seasoned pros can take on. Go ahead, count the enterprise stories in today’s edition of your local paper, whatever it may be. No, local newspapers are about simple stuff and we don’t need newspapers for that simple stuff anymore.
Simple stuff like the events calendar. A heads-up on diners and stores that are newly open for business, holding a sale, advertising a lunch special or calling it quits. The weather and cancellations. Milestones and obituaries. A local club drumming up interest for their bake sale. A message from city government that there’s still a couple of urban gardening plots available, first-come first-served. The police blotter. Classifieds. Business listings. Consumer journalism, is what some people call it.
Sometimes we get fancy with our community journalism and do a restaurant review, a feature on a local charity handing out sandwiches to kids from poor neighborhoods, a top five things to do next weekend. Those pieces take time to write. And there’s always proverbial gardening to do. Take the local theater, for example. For some weird reason they don’t want to put their stuff on our calendar, so we have someone on staff do that instead. And press releases from the hospital invariably need some tender loving care, because you wouldn’t want to see them unedited. But it’s not a ton of work, really. It’s cut and dried, it’s straightforward.
Community news is generally reported as received. Are you really going to fact-check that the Fieldhouse will be open next weekend for the Freedom Festival, when they say they will be? Small business owners can be overly promotional when you hand them a microphone, but you can’t really put a spin on the schedule for Tuesday Band Nights. More than that, community news is only reported when received. If you don’t want to tell us about the flea market you’re organizing, so be it, you suffer more than we do.
When the local newspaper collects and then spreads news from across the community, it acts as platform and publisher, not as source and hardly ever as gatekeeper. When a business owner tells us about a tasting they’re doing next week and a local high school passes along graduation photos, there’s really not much value a journalist can add to that aside from passing on the news to its intended audience.
Before the web, it made perfect sense for newspapers (not cities or non-profits or private individuals) to provide the public with its local bulletin board. Newspapers are the experts at putting information on paper and getting it distributed to pretty much the entire community for hardly any money at all. Everyone’s happy and it’s one less thing for the city communications department to worry about.
Once a newspaper has been established as the go-to place for local information, it will stay that community’s go-to place for a long while, network effects will make sure of that. But truly, there’s no divine law nor any practical argument to explain why newspapers are the preferred caretaker and distributor of community information.
You could get your information fix through a community-supported non-profit, or a subsidized one. It could be a bunch of busy bee citizens. Or it could be twenty people at the city or county communications department. Or all of the above. It could be one guy in his pajamas who set up a WordPress blog and a community forum on a GoDaddy server, and a particularly well connected sharehappy town crier on Facebook who always has the low-down on where the best bands are playing. The community calendar could be a civil servant’s pet project. Maybe a bunch of concerned neighbors get together and set up a SeeClickFix for their city. Or maybe nobody’s in charge, but every local business has its own Facebook page and people keep up to date that way.
Notices and news from the community are useful, require zero journalistic effort or intervention and can be published with free off-the-shelf software. You no longer have to be a newspaper to do it.
In Flanders, Belgium, where I’m from, the government-sponsored CultuurNet publishes the biggest and best community calendars there are. Not eBay but the privately run 2dehands.be is where most people go to find classifieds. Except if you’re looking for members to join your rock band, in which case you’d go to the website of Humo, a weekly magazine.
Newspapers still dominate when it comes to providing community news, though there’s a successful city blog with a wide roster of contributors. My favorite bars in Ghent have Facebook pages I subscribe to. The city blog is an especially good source for restaurant reviews, which is more than welcome because nobody uses Yelp or Foursquare in Belgium. There’s also het caféplan run by the nonconformist Edmond Cocquyt and his cronies, wonderfully complete overviews of every bar in every major city in Flanders.
There’s no website with local business listings I’d recommend, but there must be at least five crappy ones that are good enough. If I wanted to refresh my swing dancing moves, I’d be inclined to search for a class on the WiSPER website, and that organization is private but subsidized.
For the best coverage of Ghent’s epic 10-day city festival, you should visit Tim Van der Mensbrugghe’s personal blog, a journalist and old colleague of mine.
If I had a brunch coming up and wanted to find a good bakery, I probably wouldn’t visit any site at all but just ask my friends on Facebook or call my mom.
You can do the same exercise for wherever it is you live, and you will find – or I hope you will find – a rich and growing ecosystem of local information providers. And all across the spectrum: philantrophical, subsidized, hobby ventures, state-run, for-profit, and social.
Pretend you’re in a one-paper city, and pretend that city can’t sustain its paper anymore. The immediate result will be that you’ll end up in a news desert: a place where people can’t get the information they need about their surroundings. But is it really so naive to think that a combination of private and public effort won’t soon turn that desert into a beautiful garden again?
And anyway, local news monopolies have always had their disadvantages too:
- Once a monopoly, commercial news organizations have no incentive to go beyond “good enough to sell ads against.” Look at the business directory most local newspapers publish online, and you’ll see exactly what that means. It’s not pretty.
- Merchants and venues pay a steep price for getting the word out. Newspapers charge businesses to put up daily deals, advertise a job, or promote a lunch special. These messages help businesses, but they also help consumers, so there’s no need for a middleman to rack up profits by selling attention that citizens are glad to provide anyway.
- Newspaper companies are talking about paywalls again. Local information is vital to communities, and since everyone contributes to that stream of information, everyone should have a right to it regardless of monetizational whims of a corporation.
I don’t think we should worry too much about local newspapers disappearing. If it means the end of any and all watchdog reporting, then yes, that’d be tough and we’d need to fix that. But let’s not worry about the accuracy of our community calendar or the neutrality of a blogger’s restaurant review. Let’s not assume that governments and concerned citizens can’t step in and take care of things – indeed there’s been a surge of cities providing a platform for people to submit their everyday annoyances (potholes, noise, mess, voting on where to put bike racks) so they can get fixed.
Let’s stop assuming local journalism matters and start proving it does. It’s the only way to make sure we survive.