Local reporting is suffering from a ‘gradual erosion’

The Washington Post | Association of Alternative Newsmedia

Local reporting is suffering from a “gradual erosion,” Paul Farhi writes in a piece bouncing off Pew’s new State of the News Media report. The economics of digital publishing are especially brutal to local news, Farhi writes:

In drawing readers and viewers from a relatively small pond, local news outlets struggle to attract enough traffic to generate ad dollars sufficient to support the cost of gathering the news in the first place. Conversely, sites that report and comment on national and international events draw from a worldwide audience, making it relatively easier to aggregate a large audience and the ad dollars that come with it.

Publishers that cover national and international news account for 60 percent of new jobs in digital publishing, Farhi writes, while newspapers continue to cut jobs, usually from their local staffs. Small operations and nonprofits can fill the gap — Scott Brodbeck’s Local News Now in the Washington, D.C., area, employs three journalists and sales director and is profitable — but many are “financially precarious.” And, of course, there’s the Patch saga.

But you don’t have to go back to Watergate, or even 2012, to find examples of local stories piercing the veil that separates them from national news. The Bergen Record pushed “Bridgegate” into the lights after a traffic reporter, John Cichowski, and a reporter who covers the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Shawn Boburg, connected the dots on an epic traffic jam in Fort Lee, N.J. Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia was touted as a possible 2016 presidential candidate (and reportedly made Mitt Romney’s shortlist for veep) before Washington Post reporters unreeled the story of his ties to a wealthy donor. And West Virginia reporters rode point on the story of a chemical spill that affected 300,000 people’s drinking water.

Unfortunately, local news lacks the cachet of long-form or investigative journalism, both of which successful digital operations like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post have been able to subsidize as part of their overall bundles. The latter has “always been high-cost content that produced a very low — if any — return in increased circulation and advertising revenue,” Jack Shafer wrote in February in a column about the “new Medicis” funding journalism as a public good — Pierre Omidyar, Farhi’s boss Jeff Bezos, Neil Barsky of the Marshall Project (which just announced the hire of The Guardian’s Gabriel Dance).

Pew’s 2014 State of the News Media report also mentions that alt-weeklies, which do some key local reporting, saw their circulation decline in 2013, “but at a slower pace than in previous years: 6% in 2013, compared to 8% in 2012 and 14% in 2011.”

In a piece published March 20, Jule Banville, an assistant professor at the University of Montana with whom I used to work at Washington City Paper, lays out a case that “hip wealthy people” looking to buy a prestigious but struggling publication should consider rescuing an alt-weekly instead. Among her reasons: “Alts are still killing it on fat, important features.”

With the web, the death of “longform” journalism came and went. Dailies stopped putting a crap ton of resources into 6,000-word stories. Meanwhile, alts continued to revisit and advance what we still call the cover story. It’s the bread and butter of a good weekly, the story that makes you work the hinges on the corner box and social-media the bejeezus out of the thing. And guess what’s cool again because of tablets, and Instapaper, and sites like Longform.org (co-founded, ahem, by an alt-weekly guy)? Yep, the kinds of features alts defined. Some seem to have noticed, since an alt writer, Eli Sanders of The Stranger in Seattle, won the 2012 Pulitzer for feature writing for a brutal, moving story about a gay woman losing her partner. So take that, New York Times.

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