Greg P. over at NRO’s Media Blog is more sanguine than I am about the future financial viability of newspapers, once they’re unburdened of some of the excessive debt they took on. His point that the NYT, for instance, is still generating significant revenue certainly suggests that big national papers are not going anywhere, but I still think we’re going to start seeing more and more metro areas that simply no longer have a major newspaper.
One reader says this isn’t really a problem:
In your article you ask, “Who’s going to cover meetings of the city council, the board of education, the zoning commission, the board of property assessment appeals and review, not to mention hearings of the state legislature’s finance committee?”
I can assure you that these topics are NOT covered in our local paper, the Ann Arbor News. That newspaper consists of a hodge-podge of articles cribbed from other sources (New York Times, WSJ, LA Times, etc.) and “articles” promoting some local business/restaurant/bar. There is very little in that paper that will be missed.
With any luck, the dearth of “hometown” newspapers will give rise to truly local papers that are not dependent on the wires for stories, that REALLY serve the needs of the community, and that are not solely interested in publishing stores that don’t offend the advertisers.
Sounds great, but who’s going to pay for it? Without revenue from advertisers (or from somewhere) there’s no paper, no website, no reporters, no nothing.
Another reader says alternatives are already taking advantage of the opportunity:
So little faith in the market? Many small newspapers which focused upon the items you identified have always provided that important, local news. I suspect they will expand their coverage, as will their readership. My local weekly which I considered a joke is now providing more local news and I have started to buy it as the local daily has eliminated their local coverage. Interesting to watch nationally.
Of course, the question is whether the local weekly can find a revenue stream large enough to keep providing that additional local news — heck, maybe we’ll end up with big-city weeklies, since there’s usually no harm in waiting a few days to find out about the latest attempt to fleece the taxpayer.
Another reader also cites the experience of his, admittedly small, city to question the need for a conventional daily paper to cover the minutiae of self-government:
I’m not so sure that local bloggers “can’t” cover things like city council meetings. My hometown is Kirkland, WA, where we used to have a local/regional daily paper that I liked very much, but it became toast two years ago. Today, Kirkland has a vibrant local blogging/reporting scene that’s done entirely on a volunteer (and somewhat advertising-supported) basis. Kirkland Views is the hyperlocal must-read for news about public hearings and city council goings-on, and it even carries “letters to the editor”. And the Kirkland Weblog covers lifestyle and some local business news. This isn’t even to mention the Seattle-based Crosscut online newspaper, which has a more traditional model (if something invented in 2007 counts as “more traditional”). Of course, there are lots of local Twitter feeds that get me information in real time as events unfold, usually reported by eyewitnesses. And the city itself uses opt-in email lists to inform people about upcoming hearings, results of past ones, and even online surveys.
So I’d have to say that I’m better informed and involved now than I ever was, and that’s without paid reporters for a daily newspaper covering my town in depth.
And this from the publisher of another small-city web-based community paper, this one in Santa Barbara:
Noozhawk is an online-only community newspaper, without the paper. It’s best described as a news engine and it combines a very small professional staff with a large base of community contributors. Because the margins on the Internet are less than what newspapers traditionally can expect, we can’t sustain a large news-gathering organization, so we have to make choices. And the choices we’ve made to use our professional reporters to cover more complex community topics — K-12 education, municipal governments, county budgeting for mental health services, etc. — and to rely on the community to fill in the rest.
He says he hopes to turn a profit in 2009, and I hope this is a model that can work — but I’ll believe it when I see it.
Another reader with experience on the business side of papers had this to say:
Who is to blame for the failure of newspapers? The past decade or so most newspapers made incredible profits, ranging in the 20-37% range. But they never invested in growing readership or reach or any such thing. Everything went to the bottom line. I used to work for a paper in another chain where we typically made a 36% margin every year and we spent nothing on marketing or promotion. As a business we have only ourselves to blame.
Other readers made the editorial version of this same point — that if papers had been reporting the news straight all along, instead of peddling their biases, all would be well. I’m afraid not — even conservative/libertarian papers are in trouble or already defunct (NY Sun, Detroit News, Washington Times). Once the Internet delinked the revenue of classified ads from the costs of news gathering, a new model was needed for news, and it just hasn’t emerged yet. I’m just not sure that enough people will want to pay enough to keep local news going, which is a market decision, but doesn’t mean that it won’t undermine self-government.
As much as I like newspapers, I’m not a romantic about them and I’m happy to see dinosaurs die out. But I still think Mulshine is right — we’re going to miss them.