Thursday, February 29, 2024

Do We Need Local News?

I read a really interesting article yesterday in The New York Times about a guy who, in the '80s and '90s, was looking toward the future of newspapers in America. At the time, publishers were confident that their content was necessary and valuable, and that they would find some way to shift it online and make money from it -- either from online advertising or subscriptions.

I was a young reporter in the '90s, when the Internet was blossoming, and I remember talking about this with my co-workers. In 1995 or so, I asked my former publisher in Sarasota, Fla., when our paper was going to develop a web site, and he said, "We will -- we just have to figure out how to make it pay." But I don't think any of us doubted that we would somehow, eventually, make money online.

I remember confidently telling my relatives that I wasn't worried about the future of news. Newspapers as objects might not last -- the printed article itself, with paper pages -- but people would always need and value reliable news. Professional, trained reporters surely had a future.

What I didn't count on is the shift in news consumption from local and regional to national and international. People nowadays seem to have little or no appetite for hyperlocal news. The social stuff -- who won ribbons at the gardening show, or marched in the Martin Luther King Day parade, or local campaigns about road closures or construction projects -- has all moved to social media. The stories are told by the participants and campaigners themselves -- no reporters needed. Maybe that's not a bad thing, though I'd argue that in the case of contentious issues it can lead to distortions.

Meanwhile, many people have no idea what their local governments are up to. The stuff I used to cover -- city government, county commission, public hospital boards, that kind of thing -- largely goes uncovered in the modern world. (Or perhaps it's still covered by dwindling local papers with nebulous futures, but for how much longer?) The pros have found that they can't even give away local news.

In many communities, no one is left to perform the essential watchdog function of a local newspaper. No one is double-checking how the mayor is spending your tax money, or whether your county commissioners are respecting public meetings laws or making unorthodox deals with developers. And what blows my mind -- and what I never foresaw in my career in local news -- is that apparently NOBODY CARES!

My theory is that as the Internet opened up our worlds, and we spent more time on social media platforms that cross geographical boundaries, we all gravitated to discussion topics we share -- and that's national and international news. We see it here in blogland, where we can discuss and debate Ukraine or Joe Biden and Donald Trump, but it's harder to talk about local issues because our readers don't share the same frame of reference. (There are local news blogs but they struggle too -- remember how was supposed to reinvent local news for online platforms? I haven't heard much about Patch lately, though apparently it's still out there, at least in some areas.)

I must admit that here in London, I have little idea what my local council is up to on a routine basis, though I do read two local papers online, the Ham & High and the Camden New Journal.

I'm curious -- how many of you reading this blog subscribe to a local news outlet? Why or why not?

It seems to me that "community," which used to mean our next-door neighbors, our town or county, now means something much more amorphous. It's less geographical and more ideological. Our communities are now the people we hang out with online, often people who think like us and reinforce our beliefs. I suspect the struggle of local news outlets, and our polarized political climate, both reflect that shift.

(Photo: A watchful trash bag on West End Lane, last Saturday.)


Rachel Phillips said...

I take my local paper every day. It is a splendid regional newspaper and the only newspaper I read. Local news is important.

Poppy and Me said...

I have my local paper here in Suffolk delivered as I do like to read it as it is good for things that you can't get on Local news on tv.

Moving with Mitchell said...

I go online to get my local news, but not every day and not even consistently. And when I do pick up the local paper, I’m done with it in a matter of minutes. So, I think I’m part of that trend you describe.

Sue in Suffolk said...

Our local BBC evening news programme 'Look East' used to divide in two after the main headlines saying "news from your part of the region" but it no longer does that so we get more news from the west of East Anglia which has more big towns - like Luton and Bedford

Tasker Dunham said...

Even the regional BBC and ITV stations have reduced their news content, and local radio stations are struggling. As you say, most don't care and live in their own bubbles. Most of the social groups in my home town have gone, alomg with the many churches they were based around, with every function reported in the local paper.

Don said...

Oh, Steve. I am SO pleased that you chose to write about this serious issue/problem. I read my local newspaper which is available online and in print. When you mentioned that people can write their own local news accounts and post them on “social media” I cringe. Not only because those can easily just add fuel to the flame of one sided views. It has also lead to the very real downgrading of our exposure to properly written (correct grammar, etc.) language. One of the reasons your blog is so good and well written is because of your journalism background and skill. Amazingly, even so called educated people still use incorrect grammar and inappropriate language. And when everyday people read that stuff over and over they think it is “correct” and then repeat those usages themselves.

Sabine said...

I was raised in a household where the rustling sound of the local newspaper was part and parcel of the breakfast table. I have never been without access to a daily newspaper, although we have switched to online versions years ago.
What has changed, definitely, is that I pre-select what I read, almost like going through an online shopping catalogue when I open the online site of whatever paper, while with a proper printed paper, I would have turned pages and noticed and read more articles. The thing about being in a bubble is really a digital bias, how online news access allows us to tune out more and more. I admit that's where I find myself often but I have this thing about checking sources and I subscribe/donate to a fact finding service for verification of quotes, images and films etc. and I am sure you as a journalist know the rigorous rules about source verification. I once got into a fight with a local reporter who published an image of a ship crowded with people claiming these were illegal immigrants arriving in Spain. It was in fact a much older image from the time when Albania was in turmoil and people tried to escape to Italy - from where they were almost immediately turned back. It took some persuasion for the paper to print a correction.
I prefer print journalism (online version included) to other media like TV or the various social media channels.

Andrew said...

Ah, this is close to my heart. In the early 2000s as a body corporate member I arranged for our three local newspapers to be delivered to our building. Two were Murdoch papers and by 2010 they had all gone, including online. There has been attempts at providing local news online, but they have failed.

We are bereft of local news now. Yes, you can go to the local council website to find out what the council is doing, but who bothers. Our public broadcaster the ABC tries but it doesn't have the funding to cover local areas.

Victoria has two local newspapers, the dreadful Murdoch owned tabloid conservative party supporting Herald Sun, and the much more respected The Age. There is also the Murdoch owned national paper The Australian, but no one reads it and Murdoch must just prop up its losses.

As important as The Age is, I feel a bit sad that at times that I can read more local Victorian news in The Guardian Australia.

PS I make an annual donation to The Guardian and pay for a monthly subscription to The Age, which also covers their interstate daily papers.

Boud said...

Our "local" newspapers are still printed but full of news agency material, no local reporters on staff, no local news. Local broadcast stations same way. I get news of local council doings from friends in knitting groups in two towns and the HOA reports! Also the crime write ups by the local police on social media. It's a patchwork.

Lynn Marie said...

My small city in Maine is fortunate to have a group of volunteers start a nonprofit that thoroughly covers council meetings and subcommittee meetings as well as general goings on. After the former local newspaper collapsed, we went through a period of social media misinformation and bitter arguments because there was no accurate info about council decisions.

There are two large statewide papers in Maine. The larger Portland Press Herald was recently re-organized as a nonprofit. So hopefully this trend will continue and perhaps succeed.

Jeanie said...

You're touching on a subject near and dear to my heart -- and one that is getting a resurgence of press/commentary on national radio, print and even TV outlets -- the death of the local press. It has happened here in Lansing, MI. In my post-mold clean-out, I found many full editions of old local newspapers from major events that my family saved. Take out the reason for that event and look at the paper and it was still packed. There was a youth section that highlighted all the school plays and sports and achievements; local covering councils, school boards, etc.; Society with all the wedding announcements, big parties, social events; a huge classified ads section. It was many sections. Our Sunday paper was larger than the current NYT Sunday edition (which is smaller than it used to be, too.) There were also local human interest stories, too -- an ombudsman, of sorts or local quirky reporter. It was worth reading.

Then they fired almost ALL of their local staff, apart from management and ad sales (and maybe one or two others.) Photographers, reviewers, features... reading it, it wouldn't surprise me if the copy editor got the axe too.

Now, the typical print edition of our local paper is VERY skinny; they even put the obituaries in large print (which isn't a bad idea but also a little pathetic). VERY little local news or features -- if there is something on home and garden, for example, they pull from the Gannett feet, versus some local person. And they charge a bloody fortune for it!

Meanwhile, the little free weekly tabloid, about 20 pages, covers local arts with advance notice, reviews and features, council candidates and issues, key city things. THey've launched some investigations that have changed some things. (They also are packed with articles about the newest cannabis store or bar). Thing is, it has far more in a weekly than the "real" paper has.

As for me, I tend to get my local news from two sources (apart from the freebie above) -- our local NPR affiliate and our local television news.

You're right about social media and such -- people share what people know and if that's where they are getting news, it's going to be far more broad. And probably much less balanced.

(Another note, from a personal point of view. Having just finished writing our family history, I cannot tell you how much life and color it added, not to mention excellent details, to have newspaper clips saved by my family. They added to the personality of the people I was writing about, an energy of who they were and how they fit into the community, along with little details I would never have noticed otherwise. With the ephemeral staying power of online (it's always there but can you find it?) I wonder what future historians, small (like me) or large will be able to find to add to their work.)

Dov said...

I live in Palm Beach County, FL. So I read online a local TV stations website for news I also read The Sun-Sentinel just to keep up with what's going on . I also read The Times and Sunday Times of London along with the Jerusalem Post.

Ms. Moon said...

We get the Tallahassee Democrat online and it's not terrible but it is one of those Gannett-owned papers now. There are certainly not nearly as many local reporters and journalists as there used to be but we do read it for the local news of which there seems to be a lot, especially as Tallahassee is the state capital.There are still editorials and opinion pieces, reports of city commission meetings, etc. Also local entertainment and obits.
Jefferson County has two newspapers which are basically the same paper. They not only tell you who marched in the MLK celebration parade but keep you updated on the fund-raising church dinners and so forth. LOTS of religious and church news. Also, who was arrested for DUI. Those only come out twice a week.

Ed said...

I subscribe to a local newspaper though I don't actually get a physical copy anymore. I just read it online. I do so for the exact reasons you mentioned, I want to be informed on the local proceedings of our city government or local boards of businesses. Sadly, judging from the people on Facebook complaining about not knowing until it was already happening, I am in a minority of being informed.

I also realize that it is temporary and will go away completely at some point. Our local newspaper was bought up by a conglomerate out of Tennessee and immediately did away with the local editor and local reporters. The editor lives in Tennessee and mostly it feels like the newspaper is filled by submissions and not by reporters attending meetings, asking questions and writing articles. I am always left pondering questions that any cub reporter would have asked had there been one there.

I do worry about the future of our local communities when the last of the newspapers go away completely. I guess we will just have to rely on social media websites, again fed by submissions and not articles written by reporters.

Marcia LaRue said...

Our local newspaper is not worth the price they charge! They have no proofreaders, so all errors go out! If, for some strange reason, I want to see anything in that paper, I can look it up online!
I watch MSNBC for what all is going on in the World!

Michael said...

This was sure an interesting post for me to read as I had never really thought about the decline of local newspapers. But you are right, they have declined. I subscribe online to a local news source, and I also subscribe to an Outer Banks, NC online news blog as I like to learn about local things at the beach too.

Ms. Moon said...

Sports! I forgot to mention sports. The Tallahassee Democrat has a large sports section that covers everything from high school sports to FSU sports. I think a lot of people get the paper just for that.

Red said...

I still get the physical paper . The paper had less and less local news. For me it's disappointing to see less local news. Sadly, it's all about money rather than local affairs. Here, it used to be that kids hockey games were reported. Goal scorers were named. And surprise surprise, one of my former students had every clipping of his hockey games. Excellent post today.

Ellen D. said...

I get the Chicago Tribune online each day with an actual paper delivered on Sunday. I also get the online news from our Naperville TV station NCTV and they always cover the local city council. It's important to keep an eye on what is going on locally as that is where many politicians get their start.

Pixie said...

I like to read the news online and listen to the local CBC station as well.

Susan said...

Our local newspaper is not good journalism. They fund raise 2-3x a year and collect huge sums to support a hefty payroll as well as rent for office space owned by the Managing Director's family. Small town politics is real.

Sharon said...

I do subscribe to one local news source called the Arizona Mirror but I also watch a local news program on PBS. But I have to admit I do get most of my news from the NY Times and the Washington Post. However, you are right. I'm not getting anything close to the local newspapers I grew up with. I'm pretty certain this lack of local news has contributed to the divisions in society. Our communities have become the people we correspond with and not the people we live near. That contributes overwhelmingly to polarization.
P.S. I love the watchful trash bag.

Allison said...

Seattle used to have two newspapers, one of them folded in the late 2000's. The other is limping along, but it's a sad little paper. We used to get print, but after noticing that we'd already read most of the content the previous day on Yahoo, we quit paying for it. Spokane, a much smaller city, actually has a good online and print newspaper. We read it online, they discuss plans to solve the homeless problem, why a road project is behind schedule and stuff like that. I don't read it much, which really is shameful, I live there, I should care more. I think I've adopted the attitude of they're going to do what they want no matter what.

ellen abbott said...

Marc subscribes to bothe the Houston and the local newspaper. And he watches the morning and evening local news broadcasts. I don't read the newspapers or watch on TV. I think one problem you overlooked is that a handful of rich men have consolidated ownership of the newspapers and their particular political leanings are reflected in what gets reported. the NYT used to be reliable but it definitely favors MAGAt republicans these days. I get my news online.

Kelly said...

I still subscribe to our local newspaper since it's my main source for knowing what's going on in my area. When they went digital (only the Sunday paper still comes in print), they offered free iPads for reading it. (which has to be returned, of course, if you let your subscription lapse) I rarely watch/listen to local TV or radio and don't do Facebook, so the paper is my best option for local news. Even so, it's really gone down in quality in recent years.

Margaret said...

I try to follow my local news but as you mentioned, it's now in the hands of the internet and there are often partisans writing screeds about various issues versus laying out the facts about what's happening. A bunch of farmland in my area is being turned into warehouses and many of us are just finding out about it, probably too late to stop it. That's what happens when the community elects a bunch of right wingers to the local council. Profit over people, EVERY TIME.

John Going Gently said...

That photo is incredibly eerie
It does LOOKlike a face in a bag

Colette said...

I do miss having a daily paper to read in print version, but I subscribe to NYTimes, WaPo, and the Orlando Sentinel (which gives some local news). There is an online more local paper that comes out a few times a month, and I'm ashamed to say I don't read it. You've given me some food for thought here.

Susan Kane said...

I read my paper every day. My nephew (all knowing, himself) smirked and told me condescendingly that that was ridiculous, since all current news in on line. My newspaper never needs charging among the many problems I see in the computer news.

Catalyst said...

I still subscribe to my local paper on-line. Unfortunately, there seems to be only one skilled reporter on their staff. There are other "writers" but only my friend of years gone by is actually covering the "hard news" and doing a great job at it. I used to ask her, when I was a radio reporter in the same small market, why she wasn't at the New York Times. Obviously, Steve, your post today really got to me. I'm sending a link to it on to my friend.

River said...

I don't subscribe to any online news outlets. I still buy the local newspaper daily and skim the headlines on my way to the puzzle pages, but the price has recently increased again and I'm not sure it's worth paying that much for the 7 or 8 puzzles I do each day.
I don't keep up with local councils, mayors etc. I used to think I should, but wrongdoings that get caught are aired on the tv news daily and I find I'm just not that interested. My mediocre little life just trundles on regardless.

Yorkshire Pudding said...

Intelligent reflections. I used to be well-versed in local news because I read "The Sheffield Star" every day but round about 2002, along with thousands of other residents of South Yorkshire, I stopped subscribing. Now my knowledge of what is going on in our locality is massively diminished and the physical newspaper is in any case much thinner than it used to be.

Steve Reed said...

Rachel: I'm glad you feel that way. I wish everybody did!

Poppy: I've found that local newspapers are much better than TV for local news. TV tends to be superficial and spread over wider geographical markets.

Mitchell: Well, it's the same for me. I look at local newspapers (online) but I read them pretty quickly.

Sue: Interesting. I wonder if that reflects BBC budget cuts. Maybe they don't have enough people to focus on your region now.

Tasker: Yes, this is all part of a broader trend with community groups and clubs also disappearing. This has been happening for decades. There was a book about it years ago called "Bowling Alone."

Don: That's a very good point. Aside from the value of the news itself, what is the linguistic value of properly written and edited content? I suspect younger people, raised on a diet of text messages and social media posts, don't care as much about that kind of thing.

Sabine: With print we have the knowledge that the article we're reading has (ideally) been through multiple people before it hits the page -- a writer and an editor at the very least. (Hopefully also a copy editor.) What you describe about stumbling onto articles in the physical paper is what's known in the news business as "serendipity" and it is indeed lost with online sites. For some reason, people are much less likely to click on online articles that don't fit their interests, while they may read them in print.

Andrew: Plus, going to the council web site only gives you the council's version of their news. It's not an independent, unbiased source! I also subscribe online to The Guardian.

Boud: The "local" papers in New Jersey are a joke -- as you said, largely unstaffed and compiled by people in other towns. This is the Gannett model that began to take hold when I worked for the Courier-News in Somerville. When I started we had six or seven reporters (which is already a very thin staff) but by the time I left, a year and a half later, they were down to two. Now I'm sure there are even fewer!

Lynn Marie: It's great that people recognized the value of local news and took steps to provide it. Non-profit newspapers are under less pressure but they're struggling too.

Jeanie: It IS shocking to think about how big newspapers even in small cities used to be. I remember our Sunday papers being huge in Tampa, and yes, the NYT on Sunday used to be gigantic. I miss that! Obituaries are often printed prominently these days because they're paid for, like ads. I had to pay something like $800 to get my mom's obit printed in the Tampa Bay Times. They are not news items.

Steve Reed said...

Dov: In terms of your local news, I'm guessing the Sun-Sentinel is better than the TV station, though the latter probably provides you with video and images. (A picture is worth a thousand words!)

Ms Moon: I may be wrong but I think Tallahassee is one of the "brain centers" of Gannett, editing a lot of news for other papers across the state. It sounds like the Tallahassee paper may be healthier than other Gannett papers. Sports is a HUGE reason why local news still exists. People really want that news about their kids' sports teams, not to mention college sports!

Ed: It's interesting (and tragic) that so many local papers are now edited and published by people in other cities and states. That's how Gannett functions (just barely). At least you're still subscribing, for what it's worth.

Marcia: This is the trend I see happening everywhere -- people are switching to national and international news rather than keeping up with the local. Admittedly, quality is an issue in many markets, though I'd put up with a few typos if I'm getting any worthwhile local info out of it.

Michael: Well, at least you still subscribe! That's more than many people.

Red: It's a shame that some papers have gotten away from reporting hyperlocal stuff like school sports scores. I think people really look for that kind of news about their kids!

Ellen D: I'm glad your local TV station is keeping an eye on the city government, though in my experience TV never does as good a job as print. It's much more visual and less explanatory.

Pixie: It's great that you're keeping up with it, at least!

Susan: I'm sure it's true that independently owned papers have their own issues, though I doubt the publisher/owner is living too high on the hog based on local fundraising! I'm sure there are plenty of bad papers out there.

Sharon: Yes, I also get most of my news from the NYT and The Guardian and the WaPo. Which means I'm seeing mostly national and international news. It's definitely a shift!

Allison: Well, I'm glad the Spokane paper seems to be doing things somewhat well. Print is at a natural disadvantage because the news will automatically be a bit old by the time it hits the doorstep. That's why print publications have to put the emphasis on being BETTER rather than being FIRST. (Though they can still be first on the web.)

Steve Reed said...

Ellen: It's so interesting you perceive a pro-MAGA bias in the NYT, when MAGA Republicans often rail against it as the epitome of the liberal press! Knowing many people at the NYT myself, I doubt seriously that they would agree they are friendly to MAGA. The ownership problem is very real, though, especially with chains like Sinclair that undoubtedly skew toward their owners' political beliefs.

Kelly: Well, I'm glad you subscribe. Free iPads?! I wonder what that cost them?

Margaret: That's what often happens -- by the time people become aware of something, the ball is already rolling. That was enough of a problem even when print news was healthy, but I'm sure now it's much worse.

John: Ha! You can see lenses in the glasses, too. I wonder why they got thrown out!

Colette: Well, at least you get the Sentinel online, and that should definitely be covering your area. Maybe give the other online paper a try?

Susan: Ha! That's true, plus it's very portable and you don't need an Internet connection!

Catalyst: This is a very real situation at countless local newspapers now. They'll have just one or two writers, and often the articles are edited in cities or even states far away. I don't see how an editor who doesn't live in the community can reliably edit news about people and places they don't see or know first-hand.

River: Puzzles are a HUGE driver of local newspapers, as you've shown. I get what you mean about feeling disconnected from the news, in terms of your ability to change anything. Ironically, voter power in local markets is much stronger than it is on the national stage! (Your vote has more impact locally, in other words.)

YP: What happened to the "Sheffield Star"? Does it still exist? Is it worth resubscribing? It will probably be a shadow of its former self, if it's still around at all, but it might be better than nothing.