Local newspapers have long played a particular role in our communications environment as one of the few sources of routine coverage of local public affairs. In many countries, they seem hard-pressed by the combination of advertisement revenue migrating online and the general impact of the recession. This has led some, like Paul Starr, to worry about the future of local coverage and the consequences for our democracies, as alternatives are few and far between, in particular in countries where public service media organizations either are weak or don’t focus much on local news. What sort of behavior can we expect from city councils, regional developers, and the like if they come to think no one is paying any attention to what they are doing?
A few things have happened recently to complicate but perhaps also brighten the picture.
First, a number of critics have pointed out that local newspapers aren’t always all that great when it comes to providing timely information about local affairs and keeping an eye on people in positions of power (take for example Roy Greenslade and George Monbiot, both writing at the British Guardian). More lapdogs than watchdogs, in short. This is important to keep in mind as governments consider whether the best way to revive local media is to allow for greater degrees of market concentration etc (as the British Conservative Party has suggested)—perhaps an acceptable price to pay if they make a valuable contribution to local democracy, but a fairly unattractive scenario if they do little but offer paid advertising and free editorial “advertising for authority.”
Second, the idea that their occasional lapse from the high standards some would like to hold them to is down to business problems seems less than convincing in many cases. Take for example Trinity Mirror plc, the biggest newspaper publisher in the UK (with more than two hundred local and regional titles to its name, and subject to this withering critique from Andrew Williams at Cardiff). In their 2009 Preliminary Announcement from March 2010, Trinity Mirror plc reported an operating profit of £105.4m in the annus horribilis of 2009 (from a revenue of £763.3m), and their 2010 Interim Results from July suggests they are on track to deliver something like 25% more than that in 2010 on the back of “workforce adjustments” and a resurgent demand for print advertising. Clearly a company like this is in a position to make serious investments in local newsrooms, if they see fit to do so. But right now, the priority seems to be to make do with fewer journalists.
Third, a recent study of local news in the US suggests that new alternatives to the local press should be taken very seriously indeed. While community news sites are still too few and far between to be reliably assessed in statistical terms, a team of media researchers at Michigan State University have published a report with the somewhat surprising finding that those included in their sample actually sourced their stories more than either daily or weekly local newspapers. Sites like these are not reducible to either solitary bloggers, the lionized “citizen journalists” of early discussions of online media, or simple extensions of earlier forms of professional journalism onto the internet, but represent a new form of content generation operating across distinctions between individual and group work, professionals and amateurs, and have much to offer our communications environment in general, and coverage of local affairs in particular.
All this is important for three reasons: First, if local newspapers rarely are all they are made up to be, community news sites can offer a welcome alternative, supplement, and standard-setting competitor. Secondly, it is very likely that the lay-offs at local print operations will continue for some time in many countries, as part of a greater market readjustment to leaner commercial news media organizations, and thus those local media who have little record of standing up to local power elites are unlikely to build the capacity to do so. Thirdly, community news sites may have many advantages over local newspapers when it comes to enhancing our communications environment—they operate on platforms that afford more participation and collaboration, easier sharing and commentary, are smaller and cheaper operations to run, even when they include some paid staff and professional writers/moderators, and are generally less dependent on large local advertisers (even if often at least partially funded by charities who may not be in for the long run, and perhaps, pace their very lean operation, also more vulnerable to outside pressure in the form of lawsuits etc. There are also questions of what the critical mass of community interest is for sustaining something like this, and whether there is something in particular that drives these enterprises in the US vs. other countries).
Here, then, is to the entrepreneurs out there working hard to build vibrant community news sites covering public affairs. They may well be our best hope to good local news.