If you build it, will they come? A demand-side theory of what ails local journalism

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Former Boston Globe editor Matt Storin once said there was nothing wrong with newspaper circulation that a depression and the return of the military draft couldn’t cure.

Storin was right about scary news driving circulation. The crisis (or the excitement, if you prefer) created by Donald Trump’s presidency has led to a substantial increase in the audience for journalism. Paid circulation has reached 4 million at the “failing” New York Times. The Washington Post last year reported it had signed up more than a million digital subscribers, a number that is presumably much higher today. Audience and contributions have risen at places like NPR and ProPublica.

But hold the applause. The flip side of Storin’s observation is that the improved fortunes for purveyors of high-quality journalism are fundamentally the consequence of national interest in national news. At the local level it’s a different story. Storin’s old paper, the Globe, reached 100,000 paid digital subscribers recently. That’s a significant milestone, but publisher John Henry continues to cut in order to minimize his losses. And a steady stream of Globe journalists has departed in recent months for the Times and the Post.

The situation is considerably worse elsewhere. The journalism business analyst Ken Doctor wrote at the Nieman Journalism Lab last week that the economics of local newspaperscontinues to deteriorate:

The year has already been marked by an unforeseen acceleration of decline in the core local daily newspaper business, both in advertising and in circulation. At the same time, the hushed whispers of a local news emergency have grown louder. There’s talk — both public and private — of the need to raise huge amounts of money in order to address a crisis a decade in the making.

In casting about for solutions, Doctor looks mainly at the supply side, such as initiatives from the likes of Report for America (co-founded by Charles Sennott’s GroundTruth Project, a WGBH affiliate), which is placing young journalists in underserved areas along much the same lines as Teach for America. And there’s no question that such ideas are needed, along with new forms of nonprofit and for-profit funding.

But what about the demand side? Storin’s sardonic observation as well as the success of high-profile news organizations suggest that interest in news has been nationalized in a way that is similar to other aspects of American culture. These days, voters are more likely to choose congressional candidates based on whether they support or oppose President Trump than on local issues. We shop at Amazon, eat at chain restaurants, and write columns just like this one at Starbucks rather than, say, the local library or independent coffee shop. Given the nationalization of just about everything, how many people still care about what is taking place in their neighborhood or their community?

This is not a new phenomenon. Years ago, before the internet became the primary way by which we engage with news, an academic study found that consumption of local journalism decreased among the educated elite whenever the national edition of The New York Times expanded into a new region. After all, it’s hard for the latest wrangling among city council members to compete with the outrage of the day from Washington.

Yet we live in neighborhoods and communities, not Washington, and what happens at the local level matters a great deal. Like other media observers, I have written about the need to bolster local journalism and save newspapers from the clutches of corporate chains controlled by hedge funds. But getting ordinary people to care about what’s happening in their backyard may prove to be just as much of a challenge.

“It’s not that educated people have ceased thinking it’s important to get news,” the journalist Mark Oppenheimer once told me. “It’s that now they feel that NPR fills that vision.”

So what is to be done? These days you hear a lot about encouraging media literacy. And certainly it’s important to help people understand what’s quality and what’s crap, what’s real and what’s fake. But civic literacy matters even more. After all, you can’t get people interested in news about what’s taking place at city hall and at local neighborhood councils unless they understand why they matter.

The Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam wrote in his landmark 2000 book on the decline of civic engagement, “Bowling Alone,” that people who are engaged in civic life — voting in local elections, taking part in volunteer activities, attending religious services, or engaging in any number of other activities — are also more likely to read newspapers. “Newspaper readers,” he wrote, “are machers and schmoozers.”

What we need today is to turn those machers and schmoozers back into readers of their local newspapers.

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