Local media

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Steven Waldman & Charles Sennott write:

While national institutions like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Fox News are doing well, local news organizations have collapsed. Some 1,300 communities have totally lost coverage since 2004. The number of newspaper reporters in America has gone from 455,000 in 1990 to 183,000 in 2016.

This has made journalism more concentrated on the coasts. In 2004, one in seven reporters lived in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles. By 2016, the ratio had worsened, dropping to one in five. Part of why the national media missed the rise of the Trump voter is that newsrooms outside of these more liberal enclaves have been hollowed out.

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Mind you, I’m not calling for mini-Fox Newses in local media. That would actually make matters worse, not better. We don’t need more commentary on national issues but rather more reporting on highly local issues: not the Supreme Court but local family court, not the Mexico City policy but the functioning of the local veterans’ hospital. This old-fashioned, on-the-ground community reporting may seem less sexy, but to the people in those communities, it’s crucial.

The authors (who founded Report for America) make three compelling points:

  1. If reporting keeps governments accountable, the lack of local reporting is unlikely to keep local governments accountable. Waldman and Sennott even cite some interesting research from Notre Dame and University of Illinois at Chicago suggesting that the closure of local papers have a direct causal impact on municipal bond prices (driven by worst fiscal discipline)
  2. Local papers are critical for the success of civil society–the lack of papers “makes it harder for altruistic or civic groups to get the word out”
  3. Local papers have more representative backgrounds (Waldman and Sennott note that one in five journalists live in New York, Washington, or Los Angeles), and diversity of viewpoints increases the likelihood of truth emerging. The authors even suggest that “part of why the national media missed the rise of the Trump voter is that newsrooms outside of these more liberal enclaves have been hollowed out”

I think this is a brilliant analysis of why local news matters. I am a little skeptical of the solution though–Report for America pays half the reporter’s salary for a year to cover local news. That seems… not at all scalable? I get the Teach for America connection, but (1) it’s not clear that TFA is all that scalable either, (2) TFA’s criticism has come because of its lack of permanence–something that matters even more for journalism (you could argue that one year of educational intervention is enough to put a kid on the right long-term track, but it is unclear why journalism would have a similar impact). I do like the idea of having a local partner involved (RFA expects that a quarter of the funding comes from local partners, like universities or foundations).

The more interesting question, to me, is why local journalism died in the first place–a topic of which I am woefully ignorant. The most common answer is that newspapers are dying in general and local newspapers have worse economics and thus are the first to die. But one might argue that the “local” newspapers that are dying were overly focused on national news and only a few players could emerge victorious (Waldman and Sennott cite another report which found that only 17% of local paper stories were actually about the local community).

In fact, you could imagine a story (that I am completely making up) that local newspapers existed as regional monopolies, started losing ground to national papers with better unit economics in the digital age, tried to compensate by playing in national news, and then dying because they could never beat the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or (more likely) Fox News and CNN–and because they lost the local credibility that their readers originally craved.

If this is the case, you could imagine a savvy digital media operator coming along, building a strong digital-first local newspaper network, and doing at-scale marketing, sales, and distribution (because it is a national operator). The internet allows marketing in particular to be hyper-local and targeted. And, in fact, Patch Media was reported to be profitable in 2016, though I am not sure that is the vanguard of high-quality reporting. The model I would imagine is closer to The Athletic, with strong regional reporters–the Bergen Record, not the Wyckoff Suburban News.

It surprises me that Google, with its News Lab offering and fairly weak Google News product, is not creating something like this. Maybe they are too worried about scaring off the rest of the media industry. Or maybe they know something I do not about local news.

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