What’s going to happen to local news coverage in small towns and cities?

Although I moved away from my first career, journalism, almost exactly 30 years ago, I still maintain an avid interest in the present and future well-being of this institution that is so vital to democracy. I worked as a reporter at two small community weekly newspapers, and as editor of two others during my journalism career which spanned about 15 years, and which included getting a masters in journalism and teaching at the college level for two years.

But the signs I see today in the world of newspapers, both print and digital, are worrying in the extreme. Young people hardly know what a newspaper is these days, as they get all their news force-fed to them on newsfeeds via algorithmic monstrosities within Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Huge and avaricious hedge funds are buying up newspaper chains, including large daily papers that have been around for more than a century, and in the process are gutting them and stripping out their meagre profit margins (a total change from a generation ago when newspapers were quite profitable), cutting news writing and editing positions, and basically destroying those once venerable institutions as viable outlets for serving up local in-depth news to their communities. That takes money and resources. Hedge funds look only at profit and return on investments. A previous major source of revenue – classified ads – has gone the way of Craigslist. Print advertising is becoming obsolete as ad buying by businesses in the community, the former lifeblood of newspapers, shifts to the online juggernauts of Google and Facebook. The news business is facing even more perilous times in the future as newspapers switch over to exclusively online content, and struggle to pay salaries on the dearth of income from their wholly or mostly digital publications. How many have the deep pockets or billionaire philanthropist saviors to sustain this over time? In short, the days of delivering increasingly thin daily newspapers to the doorsteps of individual subscribers at 4 am, will be just a memory before long.

What does the future hold?

I think eventually newspapers will have to be either non-profit ventures supported by their communities with whatever advertising and digital subscription revenue they can pull in, or, profit-making ventures relying wholly on online advertising and subscriptions. Social media news feeds now dominate people’s acquisition of news. Digital only subscriptions may be too little, too late when so much news is perceived to be “free,” when it really isn’t.

I’m very alarmed by present-day trends for local news and good investigative reporting, but then I see sites like ProPublica, and I’m encouraged that maybe something similar can work on the local level. Still, a big “if.” It’s very encouraging that my local paper has an investigative reporting fund that I can contribute to and support in addition to purchasing a very reasonable yearly digital subscription. I’m proud of the public service reporting our paper does so well and so consistently, breaking major stories that have led to significant new laws and legislative changes. This is a major reason why newspapers are, and will continue to be, indispensable. I wonder how on earth people can take them for granted and watch them decline while standing by and not supporting them.

Also, it’s important to note again that a whole generation of young people hardly read print of any kind, so this has driven circulation numbers of newspapers way down over the past 30 years. Today, although Generation Y, Z and the Millennials who have grown up with the Internet get all their news from Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, etc., humans still have to collect, write, and disseminate the news. Algorithms can’t do this — yet, anyway.

A newspaper’s main circulation base is an older demographic, 60 and up. This core readership is fading away. Personally, I feel pretty sure I have had many more readers on Open Diary and Prosebox over the past two decades than I ever had at all of the five newspapers combined where I worked in the past, starting with my first reporting job in 1975. All Pro Bono!

A dangerous precedent for a community would be if local governments, businesses, wealthy individuals corporations, or chambers of commerce end up using taxpayer money or their own ample resources to revive dead newspapers in the growing number of communities where there are no newspapers. This would evolve into mere propaganda organ news outlets. The reporters would come from the ranks of private sector or government public relations (PR) personnel, and the “news” would consist basically of an endless stream of official reports and press releases.

Of course, this is often the majority of content for many local papers now, the PR is just rewritten and passed off as news. Or, newspaper reporters perfunctorily attend governmental meetings such as school board and county council, and function as scribes, writing up just what’s been hurriedly scribbled in their notepads or recorded on their phones. Community newspapers have always been understaffed and don’t have the resources for in-depth or investigative reporting, or even the desire to do it, frankly, because reporters would then risk losing those valuable “sources” in local government and elsewhere in the community. Without them, what have you got to fill up the front pages and B sections? “Official news” basically.

Deapite all this, I feel that most people will always want to be connected in some fashion with the goings on and happenings in their communities, including news of local governments, school boards and agencies and commissions. Coverage of this news is indispensable to an informed populace.

But how will the profession of news gathering and production appeal to the next generation of reporters and editors who need to make a decent living, as well as pursue their idealistic dreams and goals of informing the public, writing feature stories and commentary, and in so doing providing a vital and rewarding public service?

When I entered the field of community newspaper reporting and editing, I was young and idealistic. That is what propelled my love of the work I was doing. Will the splintered, fragmented, and Internet-driven world of news today similarly inspire future journalists? Or will the profession morph into unrecognizable online warring csmps of misinormation? Time will tell.

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November 21, 2021

I’ve always been sad that newspapers are going the way of the dodo.  Printed newspapers had so much more: international news, national news & local news, plus columns & editorials, and the so-important comic strips.  I find that the digital editions leave a lot to be desired, but then I’m in the over 60 demographic.  I don’t take the paper any more, & I’m ashamed to say that it’s because I don’t have the time to read it, because I spend so much time on the computer.  I think I need to rethink this, because I would hate to see our award-winning newspaper fold, as so many other have.