In the conversation about how to revive the U.S. local journalism industry, we’re talking too much about the kind of journalism we think Americans need and not enough about the kind of journalism Americans want. That’s what we have to figure out if we want to regain a mass audience for professional journalism. Without a mass audience, stories can’t have an impact. We’re merely fiddling for our own ears.
Writing in the Washington Post this week, columnist Perry Bacon, Jr. called on the U.S. government to spend billions of dollars to “revive local news.”
My vision for addressing the huge decline in local journalism involves hiring 87,000 new journalists for about 1,300 news organizations with more than $10 billion in funding. Such a massive investment in local news isn’t going to happen next week and probably not next year, either. But it is also not a pipe dream. There is a growing recognition that the collapse of local news and information is a crisis undermining the United States’ politics and communities.
He’s right. As I wrote this week in the Daily Yonder, reviewing Andrew Conte’s new book Death of the Daily News, about McKeesport, PA, a small community that loses its newspaper struggles to regain the professional journalism that lubricates community ties and brings people together. And, as I wrote in Poynter last year, without seeing a local professional journalist they know make phone calls and print corrections when they screw up, Americans lose their trust in larger media outlets.
Bacon argues for installing nonprofit newsrooms in every congressional district that are free local versions of “The Post, the New York Times, CNN and NPR — lots of original reporting, accessible in many formats.”
I like Bacon’s vision, but it’s incomplete. Any legitimate revival of American journalism needs to pose this question: What’s the kind of professional journalism that people actually want to read every day?
It might be the most important question the reviving journalism industry, led by amazing groups like Report for America and the American Journalism Project, is facing. There are plenty of nonprofit startups that produce excellent work but they aren’t generating the mass audience their newspapering forefathers did. Without that mass audience, important stories simply can’t have an impact.
I think it’s because they’re not giving people enough of what they really want: Stories about their neighbors that aren’t puff or hit pieces, but not investigative stories that take six months to report, either. The writeup of the high school quarterback’s workout routine. The five-phone call story about the new hotel outside of town. The profile of the new centenarian on her 100th birthday. Solid six-hundred word stories about their communities they can read on their phone or computer every day. These stories aren’t winning any Pulitzers but they’re also impossible for amateur citizen-journalists to generate. They require professionals, and they build an audience, and they build trust. Call it mac n’ cheese journalism.
An example: Earlier this year, after Dunkin’ installed a franchise in Moundsville, WV (subject of our PBS film Moundsville), I visited Quality Bake, the town’s venerable bakery that has great donuts. I asked owner Bill Henthorn how he planned to cope with Dunkin’, made a few phone calls, and wrote it up in a day. I posted the story to a few Facebook groups. Within 24 hours, it had garnered 5,000 views. Moundsville has around 8,000 people.
This is the kind of journalism I’m talking about. I was giving a voice to a small business owner in West Virginia competing with a ruthless corporation based in Massachusetts. Was that leftwing journalism because it carried an implicit criticism of corporate America? Or was it conservative because it was empowering and giving free advertising to a private business?
I don’t think it was either, and that, I think, is what people really want, and might even pay for.
How to provide that kind of journalism, obviously, is tricky. Startup costs, absent ink and paper and delivery trucks, are low, but communities need to attract talented people who are trained how to do this. I’ve written about one who inspires me, Steve Novotney in Wheeling, WV.
So here’s a counter-proposal: Spend those billions to hire and train people to do what Steve’s doing in Wheeling. Create local newspapers that people want to read and will pay for, so they’ll become sustainable business models and employ people. And then let the rebirth happen organically. Anything else, I fear, will whither and die, lonely, in the desert of the modern internet.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Dunkin’ as Dunk’n.