American Culture

Want to save local news? Kill off local newspapers. Really.

Consider this verdict based on the evidence of economics: Local print newspapers ought to die. Now. That’s what one observer believes, and he’s pretty convincing.

CATEGORY: JournalismNewspapers are on their deathbeds now, burdened by several diseases associated with print. Their physical infrastructure — printing presses, distribution means such as delivery trucks, the large buildings that typically house them (and heating, cooling and electrical costs), news stands, and single-copy racks — is too expensive to maintain. The advertising revenue that system once gleaned in bucketloads is now merely a trickle.

Newspapers’ core product — presumably valuable local news — is insufficient to fill the space around the ads, so fluff of little or no value to local readers — wire copy, advice columns, national and international news, crossword puzzles, sports agate copy, and so on — occupies the remaining space.

Ben Thompson, who writes and speaks about strategy and business, argues to save local news, everything not associated with local news ought to be stripped away. A journalist entrepreneur focused solely on local news could fund that operation with subscriptions — not advertising, he says.

What most … fail to understand about newspapers is that it is not simply the business model that is obsolete: rather, everything is obsolete. Most local newspapers are simply not worth saving, not because local news isn’t valuable, but rather because everything else in your typical local newspaper is worthless (from a business perspective). That is why I was careful in my wording: subscriptions will not save newspapers, but they just might save local news, and the sooner that distinction is made the better.

Thompson’s argument is compelling. As a business proposition, he’s arguing for selling only local news — nothing else. Everything beyond local news is an impediment to actually saving local news.

Attached to his argument is this: A local newspaper contains material that can be found online elsewhere (and in great variety) except for local news. It’s too costly, he maintains, “to maintain a veneer of comprehensive coverage.”

• The front page of a local newspaper has been handed over to national and international news. Available elsewhere.

• Opinion and op-ed commentary? Available elsewhere.

• Business news that isn’t local? Available elsewhere.

• Sports that isn’t local (and often local, too). Available elsewhere.

• Lifestyles? Health? Features that aren’t local? Games? Crosswords? Puzzles? Advice columns? Comics? Available elsewhere.

A lot of this content has long since been standardized across newspapers, but the broader point remains the same: absolutely none of it has anything to do with local news, and it should not exist in the local news publication of the future. [emphasis added]

Thompson says the local newspaper of today operates on the premise that quantity tops quality. The local paper has become a content bundle of crap designed to surround the now-decreasing print advertising.

In short, the business model drove the content, just as it drove every other piece of the business. It follows, though, that if the content bundle no longer makes sense — which it doesn’t in the slightest — that the business model probably doesn’t make sense either. This is the problem with newspapers: every aspect of their operations, from costs to content, is optimized for a business model that is obsolete. To put it another way, an obsolete business model means an obsolete business. There is nothing to be saved. [emphasis added]

Thompson offers the subscription model as a replacement for a business model failing, I think, after two centuries of massive profits for newspaper owners eroded their ability to think beyond quarterly earnings reports.

He’s arguing, remember, for a subscription model in an era in which too few believe in paying for information with value. “All information is free …” He’s not touting pay-by-the-article — this is not a micro-payment plan. The reader buys a long-term subscription and expects quality for the money regularly and routinely.

When asking people to pay, quality matters far more than quantity, and the ratio matters: a publication with 1 valuable article a day about a well-defined topic will more easily earn subscriptions than one with 3 valuable articles and 20 worthless ones covering a variety of subjects. …

A sustainable local news publication will be fundamentally different: a minimal rundown of the news of the day, with a small number of in-depth articles a week featuring real in-depth reporting, with the occasional feature or investigative report. After all, it’s not like it is hard to find content to read on the Internet: what people will pay for is quality content about things they care about (and the fact that people care about their cities will be these publications’ greatest advantage). [emphasis added]

So why should Thompson — or anyone — give a damn about saving local news?

Local government — and citizens’ right to inspect and challenge it — lies at the root of the American democratic experiment. Anyone who’s attended a real town meeting — not the mediated, spin-control faux affair used by politicians today — understands that. The town’s governing body — a select board, a town council, whatever it is — faces an audience of townspeople in a large high-school auditorium and takes questions about its actions.

Many of those questions would be posed by local journalists for the benefit of those who could not attend in person. That’s local journalism — standing in for citizens as adversaries of government. The American experiment allows — indeed, requires — the governed to challenge the governors.

That’s why Thompson — and all those concerned with preserving their rights under the First Amendment — seeks to preserve local news.

Local news in much of the nation has hit a nadir. The Columbia Journalism Review, in a piece titled “America’s growing news deserts,” illustrates in a compelling graphic the dearth of local news between the coasts.

But Thompson’s digitally focused local news rescue plan needs help. For local news to become a routine, compelling online commodity, especially in the rural parts of the nation, fast, reliable, and inexpensive broadband must be available. (Consider this irony: The federal agency tasked with charting broadband policy, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, hasn’t updated the national broadband map since June 2014.)

Then there’s the matter of the journalists who’d produce quality local news. Where the hell are they? As discussed at S&R since 2007, the number of print newsroom journalists and editors has been halved in corporate layoffs necessitated by a failed business model. Sure, there are broadcast journalists and those at online-only operations, but America is a nation of more than 39,000 general-purpose governments:

The most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau (2007) counted 39,044 general purpose local governments, which includes 19,492 municipal governments, 16,519 township governments and 3.033 county governments. There are 50,432 special purpose local governments, which includes 37,381 special districts, 13,726 independent school districts, and 1,452 dependent public school systems.

More capable journalists are needed. Governments everywhere — even the smallest — need to be held accountable for their actions. That’s the inherent value in well-done local journalism.

Indeed, the real problem with local newspapers is more obvious than folks … wish to admit: no one — advertisers nor subscribers — wants to pay for them because they’re not worth paying for. If newspapers were actually holding local government accountable I don’t think they would have any problem earning money; that they aren’t is a function of wasting time and money on the past instead of the future. [emphasis added]

Thompson’s ruminations have merit. Maybe killing print newspapers is the best way to save — and promote — local news.