Ever since the rise of the internet age, the newspaper industry has been writing its own obituary. I’ve often wondered whether the industry’s penchant for telling the story of its own demise hastened it. No matter. The demise is real, it’s happening and newspapers of all sizes all around the country are shuttering or in their death throes.
Pay attention to this, because it affects you.
Think not? Consider this. According to academic studies of communities that lost their local newspapers, government became more inefficient, civic engagement and voter turnout declined and — get this — the cost of municipal borrowing went up. Along with taxes.
That’s what happens when the press isn’t around to fulfill its role as government watchdog.
Nearly 1,800 local newspapers have closed in the last 15 years and many, many more are a shell of their former selves. The number of statehouse reporters — reporters assigned to report on the state capitol, focusing on the activities of state legislatures, governors and agencies — has declined steeply, with some states having no more than a couple reporters focused on state government.
If your local newspapers fold up, how will you know what’s going on in your neighborhood, your school district, your town or your county?
This would probably be a good time to say that I consider RiverheadLOCAL a newspaper — just without the paper. We deliver our product to you via a different medium — online, instead of in print. But our approach to reporting the news is a traditional newspaper’s approach. We don’t do sound-byte news, like television. And we don’t do what I think of as silly stuff — which may produce clicks, but really isn’t news at all.
Digital media is the means by which all news will be delivered, without exception, in short order. This is a big problem for “dead-tree” media and digital media alike. Online display advertising does not command the same prices as print. It can’t support a large staff. Like all digital startups, RiverheadLOCAL operates with an extremely small staff. Our ability to compete depends in large part on my ability to work crazy hours six or seven days a week.
If ad revenues can’t support traditionally staffed newsrooms and the success of digital local media like this one depends on the insanity and/or stamina of individual publishers, what does the future hold for local news — and local communities?
I’m certainly no soothsayer, but it seems clear that some things must change.
For one, news consumers should expect to pay for quality local journalism. More local news outlets will be erecting — actually, reinstating — pay walls. If you value what they give you, you should be willing to pay a subscription fee to obtain it.
For another, local businesses, trade organizations and community groups must recognize that local news media are a part of the local business ecosystem that deserves support. We are so often asked to publicize local business ventures, events and tourism campaigns for free by people who then spend their ad dollars on non-local media and social media. We are local businesses too and we rely on the support of local businesses and residents to survive — just like other local businesses. And besides all that, our ads deliver. We serve them to an engaged local audience, an audience that cares about its community. And they know where to turn when they want reliable news and information about what’s going on.
And then there’s social media — and the cottage industry that’s arisen promising to help local businesses maximize social media. This could be a column all by itself.
If you control a marketing budget in our community, please remember: Google and Facebook are not going to send reporters to your press conference. They are not going to cover your local government or school board. They won’t be there to take pictures at your parades or graduation ceremonies or retirement parties or other events. They are not going to send anyone to profile a new business, or new CEO or new pastor. And they are not going to care about our community and its residents. At all. They just suck the money out of your ad budgets — and out of our community.
Support local news media.
It’s popular to trash “the media” these days. But ask yourself: Can you really trust politicians and governments to tell you the straight facts of what they’re up to and how it will impact your life, health and pocketbook? Can you trust Facebook posts for accurate information about what’s going on in your community (or in our county, state, or nation, for that matter)?
News media — especially newspapers — in communities around the country are struggling to survive. Whether they do or not is really up to us.
Support local news — RiverheadLOCAL, The Riverhead News-Review, The Suffolk Times, The Southampton Press, East End Beacon, Newsday. We’re here for you, day in and day out.
Journalism matters, folks. And it doesn’t come free.
‘Sunshine Week’ series :
Sunday: Why open government matters