Jack Shafer on why local newspapers are failing: “The readers have withheld their affections”

From a Fourth Estate column by Jack Shafer on politico.com headlined “Why Has Local News Collapsed? Blame Readers.”:

Local news is good for us, we’re told daily, most recently this week in a FiveThirtyEight piece and seconded by the Reliable Sources newsletter. Local news makes representative government more accountable, scholars claim. Books and monographs extolling the virtues of local reporting on everything from public health to economic vitality abound….

So, why is local news collapsing, a trend spotted over the past two years by everybody from the New York Times to the Brookings Institution to the Harvard Business Review? The blame is often placed on rapacious publishers like Alden Global Capital or online advertising giants like Facebook and Google. Yes, they’ve contributed to local news’ declining fortunes, but the best explanation might be that publishers and editors have ignored the underlying cause. Despite all the impassioned calls from academics and journalists to salvage it, local news’ most vital constituency—readers—have withheld their affections.

In 2009, just as the apocalypse befell the newspaper industry but while local news was still in relative abundance, many readers gave it an apathetic shrug. A Pew Research Center survey from that year found that an astonishing 42 percent said they would miss their paper “not much” or “not at all” if it vanished. They said this even though 74 percent conceded that civic life would suffer “a lot” or “some” if their local newspaper died. Their apathy ultimately expressed itself in financial terms….

Where did all the local news go? A couple of decades ago, publishers collected so much revenue that they invented new sections, including local news, to spend the loot. Many metro newspapers ran weekly sections about computers and tech, weekly TV program guides, free-standing business sections filled with page after page of stock prices, Sunday magazines, pull-out book review sections and weekly tabloids about suburban counties. The Washington Post once ran a weekly section called “Sunday Source,” designed to hook young readers, and column after column of police blotter in its “District Weekly” section. Newspapers were cash machines….But after the Internet destroyed the advertising moat that had protected newspaper revenues for more than a century, editors and publishers stripped down the old newspaper, including local sections, to a more basic package to cut costs.

The decline of local news has paralleled the decline of the newspaper audience. In 1940, when the population was less than half of today’s, American newspaper circulation was greater. Newspapers lost audience not just to the Internet but to cable, TV and radio, as well as to the non-news functions found on smartphones. The advertising dollars that once helped to support local news fled for the Web, where ads could be better paired to content—sometimes at a lower cost—to sell an advertiser’s wares. As Google economist Hal Varian put it in 2013, pure news had “very high social value to interested readers” but “low commercial value due to the difficulty of showing contextual relevant ads.”

There’s evidence that low-cost, quality national news online from the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, NBC and other outlets has siphoned off readers who might otherwise partake of local news. Newspapers also appear to have priced themselves out of the reach of many readers, jacking up the cost of subscriptions to cover the dive in advertising revenue. In 1980, for example, the Washington Post charged $92 a year for weekday and Sunday home delivery ($315 in today’s money). Today, the Post charges $1,160 annually for a lesser product….That’s a lot of money in most family budgets—more than annual subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and HBO Max all together would cost you.

The great masses of readers and advertisers might spurn local news, but that doesn’t make its production a futile gesture. Scores of nonprofit local news start-ups exist in such places as San Diego, Denver, Santa Cruz, Minneapolis and Flint, and, together with local public radio stations that have expanded their news footprints, these outlets do yeoman’s work. Axios has set up small local news operations in a half-dozen cities and promises to expand to others, although one of its founders told the Wall Street Journal last year that its localized newsletters would focus on business, technology and education, not politics. One of the best local news sites in the country can be found in Memphis, where the shrinking of the Gannett-owned Commercial Appeal newsroom inspired the founding of the Daily Memphian, a nonprofit, local-centric news site, in 2018….

Local news advocates such as Steve Waldman, co-founder of Report for America, would like to see local news to be declared a public good—an essential service that nobody can make money providing—and unleash governments to finance it with subsidies, refundable tax credits (akin to the federal campaign finance credit on your 1040), tax incentives, government advertising and other interventions.

You should read Waldman’s pitch in the Washington Monthly, but even if we build such a subsidy and tax-credited operation, can masses of readers be enticed to come? Are journalists designing local news initiatives that gratify them and their academics colleagues, but that lack appeal to readers? As my friend Jason Pontin, former editor and publisher of Technology Review, noted last month, “media types sentimentalize local news because it presents local news journalists as a heroic caste ‘holding the powerful to account’ and binding communities together.” But this “fetishization” of local news ignores the unwillingness of the public to pay for the product. Local news just isn’t producing a product that people need.”

All the studies, monographs and public good arguments in the world aren’t likely to win readers over. It’s telling that two of America’s best and most successful newspapers, the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post and the New York Times, have deprioritized local news in recent decades. Maybe they know something the local news touts don’t. The groups most enthusiastic about saving and expanding local news are journalists, whose self-interest is self-evident; good-government types who savor the watchdog function of the press; tech giants like Google and Facebook, which have donated millions to local news to disarm critics who claim they destroyed newspapering; politicians like Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, who regard the news as “infrastructure”; and academics and foundations that say local coverage is integral to a functional society.

The local news movement won’t make much progress until its proponents realize that its primary obstacle is a demand-side one, not a supply-side one. It’s not that nobody wants to read local news; it’s just that not enough people do to make it a viable business. Maybe the surfeit of local news of yesteryear was the product of an economic accident, a moment that cannot be reclaimed. But even if you were to underwrite local news with taxes and philanthropy, and distribute it to citizens via subsidies, you’d still have to find a way to get people to read it. Until some editorial genius cracks that puzzle, the local news quest will remain a charitable, niche project advanced by journalistic, academic and political elites.

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