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The decline of local news is a problem for everyone

Off the Board/Opinion by

On Nov. 2, DNAInfo, Gothamist, and four sister news websites in other American cities were shut down. Prior, these sites provided hyperlocal news coverage of their respective cities, including New York and Chicago. Their websites now display an ominous message by owner Joe Ricketts, citing profitability as the cause of the shutdown.

“At the end of the day [these sites are] a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure,” Ricketts’ message reads.

Ricketts, who previously founded the brokerage firm TD Ameritrade, bought the group of sites from their original founders in 2009. He isn’t the only one looking to newspapers as a business venture. Beginning in the 1970s, corporate owners of national newspapers, such as the Chicago Tribune, have bought up smaller publications and scaled back newsroom personnel in an effort to offset the trend of diminished print advertising. Postmedia’s Nov. 27 announcement that it will be closing all but one of the 24 small publications the company is acquiring from Torstar Corp. is a case in point.

As a result, truly local reporting is disappearing at an alarming rate, largely because its value as an essential news source is seen as secondary to its bottom line. The loss of print advertising and the subsequent failure of smaller newspapers to become profitable online are both causes of small papers’ decline. But, part of the blame also falls on corporate publication owners who have yet to acknowledge and find solutions to these problems.

In a 2009 article for The Nation, John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney argued that this corporatization of the media—namely, the widespread emergence of corporate ownership and consolidation of newspapers—is to blame for the current precariousness of local journalism. Local reporting was the first to face cuts when its coverage didn’t drive profits. What corporations fail to understand is that this type of reporting provides the greatest value in a form other than profits.

[Preventing the loss of local news coverage] will require media owners dedicated to keeping local news afloat, and recognition that local news sources are not only business enterprises, but also providers of an essential public service.

A lot of local reporting can be fairly characterized as boring. Reporters who cover local government meetings would hardly call it glamourous. However, their work is important in the larger context of keeping politicians accountable within communities by creating a public record of government meetings and affairs. Samuel Stein writes in The Village Voice that local reporting in Gothamist and DNAInfo cover the “political minutiae” that larger media outlets do not, “which is often where the most telling details lie.”

Moreover, journalists from larger media outlets often use public records compiled by local reporters to inform their own reporting. In fact, many TV news stories are simply reproductions of stories that appeared in local newspapers first. Julia Wick, a former writer for LAist, the Gothamist’s Los Angeles equivalent, described her work as important to the larger fabric of city-wide and even national news coverage in a Nov. 6 CityLab article.

“Some of the work we did might have seemed small, but the ‘small’ local stories we covered would often end up being part of larger patterns and louder stories,” Wick wrote.

Despite being an important part of the larger news food chain, local reporters are underpaid, overworked, and seen by owners as reporting stories that don’t matter as much as national or international coverage, because they generate less attention from readers. Ricketts made this fact abundantly clear when he shut down the sites only a week after the staff voted to unionize under the Writer’s Guild of America East.

Gothamist and DNAInfo, both relatively recent attempts at hyperlocal, online reporting, failed to solve the problem of monetizing local news in the digital age. However, a solution is desperately needed to prevent the newsscape from losing its valuable local news coverage. This will require media owners dedicated to keeping local news afloat, and recognition that local news sources are not only business enterprises, but also providers of an essential public service.

Ricketts’ farewell letter praises the work these publications have done. He closes with his hope that “someone will crack the code on a business that can support exceptional neighborhood storytelling,” yet, he is unwilling to face this challenge himself. Gothamist and DNAInfo were shut down because Ricketts did not want the staff to unionize. Nichols and McChesney proposed, in the same Nation article, that government subsidies should prop up local journalism as a public good. They recognize the idea as a “controversial position,” but when corporate ownership of news has failed news consumers as severely as it has, perhaps it’s time for a radical solution.

 

 

Noah Sutton is the Creative Director at The McGill Tribune.

 

 

 

 

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