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.
Also, reported obituaries on their notable (in some fashion) neighbors.
But journalists were doing this when their local papers went out of business. Papers died in part because e-bay took the local “for sale” advertising market. It wasn’t the type of journalism or the lack of acumen or market understanding of the journalists and editors. It was the lack of local revenue supplied by local business who find it cheaper to advertise on the web. See Margaret Sullivan’s book: Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.
Largely true–although there were a lot of mediocre local papers–but I think we’re talking here about what kind of coverage might add stickiness to the new operational models that are being attempted.
Also, journalism’s traditional function may have been quietly changed. While the adage-description of journalism essentially remains “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” what or who constitutes an “afflicted” and the “comfortable” has been revised by much of corporate news-media.
For example, an “afflicted” of our contemporary news-media times needing comforting may be an owner of a multi-million-dollar home that’s worth too much, thus taxed higher, and he/she therefore desires tax respite. Or an already very profitable fossil-fuel-producing corporation that desires more taxpayer-funded subsidies along with the populace’s complacency with the industry’s increased pollution and global warming for the sake of even greater profit.
And for those who haven’t already noticed, newspaper and other current-affairs websites are increasingly converting to (what I call) pay-to-say formats, where the reader must buy a subscription in order to be permitted to comment on the articles.
Very interesting discussion, all of this (and I love “stickiness”). I’m reminded of the new program I heard advertised recently on WAMU, Washington’s (D.C., that is) local NPR station. WAMU’s The Middle is “a new national call-in talk show aimed at elevating the voices of Americans who live in between the coasts.” Maybe I’m cynical, but I could almost hear the whistling sound of this program tanking. As an Ohio native, I’m assuming people in the “middle” don’t really want to talk to Jeremy Hobson about topics in their hometowns he has no clue about. Why is it up to listeners in the middle to educate journalists on the coasts? They have to write their own stories now? Why can’t we have journalists in those towns? Big business? Capitalism run rampant? Maybe, instead of this new program, WAMU can just send a journalist to Youngstown, Akron, etc.
For me, the mainstream news-media can never be critiqued too much. … Basically all mainstream journalism [very much including the CNN and Fox News forms] has largely become a profession motivated more by a buck and a byline — i.e. a regular company paycheck and a frequently published name with stories — than a genuine strive to challenge the powers-that-be in order to truly comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable in an increasingly unjust global existence.
Perhaps such journalism has become so systematic thus normalized — i.e. the ethical (and sometimes even the moral) standard has been further lowered — that those who are aware of it, notably politicians and political writers, don’t bother publicly discussing it.
Meantime, there still are reporters and editors who will (as though with big innocent fawn-like eyes) reply to such critiques as this with, ‘Who, me? I’m just the messenger.’ Whatever the news media may be, they are not ‘just the messenger’; nor are they but a reflection of the community — or their consumership, for that matter — in which they circulate.
Still, other concerned people would’ve worded it even stronger: “I would argue that what little ethical and moral foundation the country has is deeply threatened by the crumbling discipline of a fossil-fuel-based economy and the politics it spawns. Nothing requires government supervision in so many areas (and nothing has anything like the influence on government) as this industry. It follows that no other industry remotely requires the amount and kind of honest, wary media surveillance this one does,” the late Rafe Mair aptly wrote in his 2017 book Politically Incorrect, in which he forensically dissects democracy’s decline in Canada and suggests how it may be helped.”
“What has the media, especially but hardly exclusively the print media, done in response to this immense challenge? It’s joined fortunes with the petroleum industry. And a very large part of it has done so in print and in public. The facts are that the rest of the media have not raised a peep of protest at this unholiest of alliances and that governments contentedly and smugly pretend all that favorable coverage they get proves their efficiency — not that the fix is in and they’re part of that fix. Let me just comment that the difference from 1972 to 2017 in the media’s dealing with governments and politics takes the breath away!”
Maybe there’s an informal/unspoken agreement amongst the largest mainstream news-media: ‘Don’t dump on me, and I won’t dump on you.’