For more than two decades now, local and regional newspapers have been pummeled by the arrival of an unprecedented advance in communications — the internet.
Their revenues have plummeted and their ability to cover local news has been impaired.
Many in the industry — even Warren Buffett, who purchased a group of newspapers that includes this one — despair of finding a business model that will work in the digital networking age.
Other media industries — including television, music, books, movies and magazines — also have struggled to adapt to the strange new power of the internet. That they’ve done better than local newspapers is mainly because they have national markets that better match the internet’s focus so far on its unique national and global reach. The newspapers that have best adapted are those that have a national readership too.
Local newspapers probably haven’t seen the worst of this change yet. But I am confident that eventually the inherent need for credible reporting on matters where one actually lives will ensure the success of local news organizations.
That it hasn’t so far is understandable, given the magnitude of the change, the character of the industry and the complex process of transitioning to a much different world.
People don’t like change, at least not at first. When someone’s life or environment changes, the initial response typically is to try to find a way to keep doing what they’ve been doing. Since that’s seldom sufficient, next they try to adapt what they’ve been doing to the new circumstances.
Only then, when that too isn’t enough, will people start to think deeply about and try to understand the change. If they can, and know themselves well enough, they’ll see not only how it has made some of their approaches obsolete, but more importantly the new opportunities it offers them.
Such has been the case for newspapers. They began by simply putting their stories, photos and other content online — free to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. Even TV comedians mocked them for giving away their product and wondering why they couldn’t make money.
Next they adapted their longtime habit of providing a daily edition, now online, by adding stuff — videos, audio recordings, ways for people to respond or comment online, and more stories from wire services than anyone could ever read or want. At least this recognized and used some characteristics of the internet, such as communication in unlimited quantity.
Not enough. Not nearly. They must see how the regional newspaper’s mission, its reason for being, can be powerfully served in new ways by the extraordinary (and still largely unrealized) capabilities of digital networking.
Local news media long have been the extended senses of the community, letting its members see and participate in the life of their town, county and region. They’ve also provided a reliable way for people to speak to their community. They have not only been the credible source of regional information, but also have ensured a degree of credibility and responsibility among the local voices they’ve carried.
Hard to tell exactly what will serve that mission when the internet’s capabilities are used to empower local people and the community (instead of devaluing them and way overvaluing national engagement).
Newspapers could moderate an ongoing discussion in each town about local affairs. They could be the vehicle for people to gather into groups for community action, service or simply fun. They could help seniors to manage their complex government insurance and benefits. They could organize all of the community’s nonprofit service offerings in one place. Build an online museum of local art. Offer a meaningful look at any local store or service someone is considering using. Make it possible for people to connect with neighbors and those with similar interests — and know they’re actually who they say they are.
The rise of such services will be a sign that regional news media are starting to understand what the internet makes possible at all levels, not just the national and global.
Another will be that the local digital services are available to subscribers only, who are in or part of the community. Since the community online will mirror the one in the real world, its members will be known to each other as they use digital communication to build upon the interactions and relationships of their everyday lives.
The credibility of the robust, dependable local newspaper will help bring order and responsibility to the online community it serves, allowing it to fully function. And advertisers will help fund it all to reach these subscribers because they are solid members of the community and thus their potential customers.
Such is my dream of the next golden age of local journalism, but I truly believe it is inevitable, just a matter of when. The local and regional are too fundamentally important to be hollowed out by greedy tech corporations forever, and the chaos and insecurity spawned by the so far crude misuse of this transformative change in human communication are sure to provoke a movement toward order, responsibility and genuineness. That will have to start locally, person to person, and grow beyond from there.
Kevin Post is editorial page editor.