Crisis In Our Backyards

Can Local News Survive?

Black and White Colors

Miffinberg is a town in Pennsylvania with a population of around 5,000 people. I remember driving through it when I was younger; the familiar dreary tri-state area marsh giving way to a small, respectable but unremarkable strip of homes and businesses.

When the town’s paper, the Miffinberg Telegraph, published its last issue on January 30th, 2014, it must have been surprising to its readers. The family owned paper had remained remarkably consistent in its seventy years of operation; a 8-12 page spread of local news, obituaries, school menus, town events, and the occasional oddball editorial choice (a morbid feature that briefly ran in the early 2000s listed the week’s latest rulings in “Orphan Court”). This was still true in the last issue. Yet, since the turn of the millennium, subscription prices had risen from $11 to $20 a year, well above the rate of inflation, as the classified section shrunk in size. Things were simply not economically tenable anymore. And so it was gone.

You can tell a similar story about a number of small-town newspapers in this country. In fact, the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism pegs the number at 1,800 papers closed since 2004, approximately one in five local newspapers. Of those, 1,300 represent communities and towns now completely devoid of local news.

We live in times uniquely unsuited for institutions like The Miffenberg Telegraph. Across every traditional medium—television, radio, and newspaper—local journalism is under siege both economically and existentially. And while the Internet, the potential savior of national news and the disruptor of the way we communicate with one another, provides a limitless ability to disseminate local news, efforts at doing so have been slow to adopt and generally narrower in breadth.

When we talk about the decline of local journalism, it is not just a business story or an economic story, it’s a story about a polarizing culture and a fracturing nation, both of which risk increasing with a weakened local news ecosystem.

Over decades, local news grew into an important benefit for towns across the country. In a single generation, we risk losing it all together.

Locally, The Birth of American Journalism

1

Early schematics for a printing press, circa late 1800s.

F most of its early history, newspapers in America were published by nationally-concerned partisans with naked political agendas. The first paper, Boston’s Publick Occurrences in the early 1700s, was a borderline nonsensical litany of conspiracy theories against Britain’s enemies and indigenous people. 1While newspapers would grow in the following century to play a notable role in the American revolution and the formation of the United States, the actual substance published in the papers were generally of low-quality and openly opinionated. The idea of journalism as a vocation was still unadopted, papers were published by printers who compiled information from postmen and political operatives.

The 1800s brought the rise of advances in printer technology, allowing for cheaper and faster printing. While this decreased barrier to entry laid the groundwork for a fiery abolitionist press that proved important to ending the spread of slavery, its effect of the burgeoning media mass market was less positive. Coinciding with the rise of higher literacy rates nationwide, easier printing had the potential to mark a moment of transition into strong, thoughtful reporting.

Instead, the increased availability of printing led to wars between yellow journalism shops in major cities, beginning with Benjamin Daly’s founding of the New York Sun in 1833. 2Daly was the prototypical newspaper mogul, a forerunner of later figures like William Randolph Hearst and Rupert Murdoch; unapologetically capitalistic, unafraid to wield his media properties to suit his own ends, and generally unconcerned with the factual and moral responsibilities of publishing news. An early front page of his publication is a serialized reprinting of a story called “The Gypsy Nurse, or Marked For Life” 3, another spends some hundreds of words explaining that the Chinese “drink a lot of American brandy.” 4

Selling for a penny at a time where most papers sold for six times that, his daily Sun was wildly successful and inspired a number of competitors across the nation’s cities. These papers were extensions of the rapidly expanding tentacles of industrialism, publishing what one critic described as “indecency, blasphemy, black-mail, lying and libel”, all produced at scale to appeal and with the goal of appealing to the largest possible audience. 5

The number of newspapers exploded in the later half of the 1800s. While the urban areas mostly concerned themselves with scandal in the name of profit, the technological advances of printing presses also led to a number of newspapers founding in smaller, rural towns. Due to poor archiving, many of these papers are lost to time, but what does remain shows early examples of service and local journalism.

Because these papers existed in smaller markets with less competition, there was less of an economic incentive for the sensationalism that often defined the urban press. While still undoubtedly products of their time—it’s difficult to read archives of any newspaper from this time without finding an example of a repugnant prejudce—these papers began to establish the foundation of local journalism: a gathering place for local information and a guardian against community corruption and oppression.

The role of a local press

2

Early schematics for a printing press, circa late 1800s.

It is difficult to quantify the effect that solid journalism has on a community. This is largely due to the fact that social studies were not widely studied during the rise of the newspaper. There are few studies that analyze a community before the advent of local reporting and then after. However, because of the decline of local news, a number of studies offer an insight into the effects on a community that is deprived of local reporting. From this, we gleam insight into the importance of local news: without it, communities are less politically engaged, more polarized, and more susceptible to local government corruption.

The Internet and the Recession

3

T he internet was the ultimate disruptor of for-profit local news. By connecting potentially every person together, the internet created mass communication at a scale and speed unimaginable to anyone who lived before it.

This advance in communication especially hurt newspapers. Suddenly, its role as a town square became unneeded, as information could be passed faster and more effectively without it. The parts of the newspaper business that supplemented the expensive business of reporting suddenly began to collapse upon itself. The expansion of Craigslist destroyed classified ad revenue nationwide. Advertising rates declined both in television and newspaper, as the market shifted towards the potentially massive scale of internet marketing. By the 2008 recession, the newspaper industry was already in retreat, and the economic downturn only accerelated the trend.

It is almost a meme at this point to point out that the newspaper has been decimated over the last two decade. However, it does bear repeating just how truly staggering the numbers behind this decline are. Take the circulation numbers for weekly and daily newspapers.

That is an over 50% drop-off in less than fifteen years, an incredible decline. Meanwhile, advertising revenue and circulation revenue, the traditional funding source for newspapers, has similarly evaporated.

As you may expect, these declines line up closely with the rise in the number of Americans who use the Internet as a news source.

Theoretically, this means that if newspapers simply moved online, they would be able to move with the consumers. However, the advertising landscape has changed; ads are now on average cheaper than they were in print newspapers, and platforms like Google and Facebook now dominate advertising spending. Research has also shown that consumers are less likely to pay for online local news.

The effect has been devastating for the people who work in the industry. Newspapers have lost half of their staff in the last fifteen years. Over 1,300 communities in this country now lack any kind of local news.

The effects of the last fifteen years have been less pronounced on the local television industry. However, it still faces a decline in engagement among the American public, especially in the past five years.

Perhaps even more ominously, there is a massive demographic age split. Unless local television news can begin to build a younger audience, it risks a similar fate as the newspaper.

Moving Forward

4

W here does this leave local news?

What was once an American institution now risks a near extinction. The model of for-profit newspapers seems nearly impossible; as we will explore later in this project, the largest newspaper publishers are nearly universally financially imperiled. While television has maintained an audience and profitability, it risks a generational slide to irrelevance. Few local newspapers or television stations have successfully fully transitioned to online publication, presumably because the online advertising has shifted towards a larger scale on bigger platforms.

In the next sections of this project, we will explore the current state of local news more thoroughly. We will unpack the risks consolidation of media ownership, explore the relationship between technology and journalism in greater detail, and explore new approaches to better, more sustainable local media.

Local news provides an important service to our society. Communities become more polarized, less informed, more unengaged, and corruptible without it. And yet, the old business models and distribution platforms of local news seem to be irrevelcobly broken.