With every type of business feeling the pains of our struggling economy, the news industry in particular has faced difficulties making ends meet. While print media is already battling the specter of a slow death, it is the smaller, more local newspapers that are having the hardest time staying alive. Just last week, it was reported that San Francisco might lose its primary local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, if its parent company fails to find a buyer, and Denver’s Rocky Mountain News published its last issue on Feb. 27.
The struggles of these newspapers, among others, has called into question not only the relevance of local news but also how local topics and events will be covered in the future if the demand for local news is no longer profitable through traditional print. While national outlets like The New York Times are still hanging on in some respects, it is becoming easy to underestimate the importance of a strong local publication and the type of unrivaled coverage that it can provide.
Local newspapers serve an important role in communities. They provide a reliable source of information on events that hit closer to home. While national papers may be critical for reporting on world events, it is smaller, local papers that create an outlet for reporting that highlights more personal events that a larger publication just can’t cover. For instance, local newspapers are often the only news watchdogs of local government. If they close, who will dig up the issues that matter to specific communities? Who, for example, would have uncovered the corruption of Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona?
Local papers also provide important coverage of local stories with national significance. The Rocky Mountain News, for example, won four Pulitzer Prizes in the last decade. In 2000, the paper won for its photo coverage of the Columbine school shootings. The paper’s last edition included pieces on Colorado’s high student drop-out rate and the state’s crumbling infrastructure. This is the type of coverage that will disappear with the paper’s end.
Local newspapers also provide important local sports coverage. For many American sports fans, local teams are just as important, if not more so, than those of professional leagues. These teams and athletes are not covered in national newspapers.
Additionally, local newspapers serve as important sources of information about the arts and smaller cultural scenes that wouldn’t receive recognition without local coverage. Even a publication like the New University fills an important gap in reporting the events of UC Irvine, while highlighting important campus speakers, events and activities. You’re not going to find coverage of the Anteater Baseball program in a national newspaper like USA Today. If one were to read only The New York Times every day, he would likely be well-informed about national and world issues, but he would be ignorant of information that pertains solely to his community.
It is hard to say how the print media will fare in the coming years. However, it is likely that local outlets will suffer the most. It is important to remember that this is not because there is less demand. While some local newspapers may fail due to a lack of readership, the truth remains that the demand for quality local news has never been higher. Even as the parent company of The Los Angeles Times sits in bankruptcy, the newspaper’s readership has grown rapidly. The problem is that this growth has been Internet-based and it has come at the expense of the paper’s print circulation.
Newspapers have traditionally relied on their print circulation for advertising revenue. Revenue took a serious hit when Web sites like Craigslist.com cut into newspapers’ bread and butter: classified ads. The recession has only worsened the newspaper industry’s financial woes. Companies are spending less on print advertisements, which further erodes a paper’s funding.
Local communities continue to thirst for more relevant news coverage. If newspapers are to continue to meet this need, they must be willing to change in order to survive. There needs to be new ways of raising money to fund quality coverage, such as embracing multimedia like podcasts and video. Where there’s a will for news, there will be those who will bring it to the masses.
With the ease of setting up Web space, it seems likely that many local publications seeking to provide a more cost-effective way of reporting will turn to the Internet. The paranoia that many print media journalists feel about the slow decline of their craft provides a unique opportunity for a step in legitimizing online reporting. If faced with the choice of going completely online, local publications can be the first wave of structured, respectable news outlets to bring a new level of respect to an Internet age littered with blogging sites that are content to follow every second of the most recent celebrity breakdown.
As with the change from radio to television, news production is constantly developing, and newspapers must be willing to embrace the advances available to it or risk fading away into the pages of history.
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