The death of regional newspapers does not necessarily signal the death of local news

slide1 thumb1 The death of regional newspapers does not necessarily signal the death of local news
A cacophony of noise on the web and elsewhere is heralding the death of local news as more and more regional newspapers go out of business. But does the death of regional newspapers necessarily signal the death of local news? I think not.

This post was prompted by the reading of two different texts. The first a book by the media consultant and blogger Jeff JarvisWhat Would Google Do. The second an article I read on Saturday on The Guardian.

Much has been written about What Would Google Do, so I won’t dwell too much on it, other than to say that Jarvis presents a very pessimistic future for print media unless publishers embrace the internet 2.0 era.

The Guardian article, authored by Ian Jack, on the other hand, laments the passing of regional media and puts forward the opinion that without local newspapers there will be nobody to scrutinise proceedings. Thus the public will only be left with the official version (read PR media release version) of events.

Now the Guardian piece makes a compelling argument, but I believe Jack has made assumptions that limit his ability to look at the alternatives to a printed local newspaper. I believe the false assumptions he made are:

  • That it is not possible to report on local news unless you are in the locality itself;
  • That only trained journalists are capable of writing copy that fulfils the obligation of providing an alternative to the official version;
  • That individuals will only engage and trust information about their local area if it is printed in a newspaper format; and finally
  • That an online news outlet is not capable of making comparable profits to that of a print publication.

Like Jarvis, I believe the future for local news will be online and that the current practice of employing a full time team of journalists to deliver local news is no-longer economically sustainable.

As I mentioned above, Jeff Jarvis devotes a large portion of his book (and also his blog), to recommendations for newspaper companies on how they should be adapting to the new landscape. Below I have paraphrased that advice and added my own take in a few bullets:

  • Local news organisations need to focus on what they can do alone; that is report on hyper local news such as local court proceedings, local police rounds, council proceedings and other local specific items. This content is not covered by other news organisations and is of interest to the local community;
  • Don’t employ journalists to write news that isn’t focused on your local area. Why employ a movie/music reviewer to review new releases when there are countless other reviews of this online already? Likewise, don’t cover national and international news or say motor reviews. If it has resonance outside of your local community, odds are that it has already been reported elsewhere, so simply link to it;
  • Identify those people within your local community that are topic experts and are already creating content on their own blogs or sites. If they are passionate about their topic and writing already (be they a professional journalist or not) odds are they are creating better content on that topic than the general news journalists you employ. Don’t see them as competitors, rather partner with them and provide editing advice where required. Finally link to their site, drive traffic there and share the advertising revenues that result;
  • Where partnerships don’t already exist, look to similiar news organisations in nearby towns to build relationships. Consolidate your advertising teams and benefit from the economies of scale that will arrive because of this. Also investigate the advantages of employing automated ad services such as Google Adwords to outsource and automate the sale of media; and finally
  • Look to big established media players, the likes of MSN.com (disclosure – owned by my current employer), The Guardian or Daily Mail. How could you enhance their offering by providing local specific information online. Make a partnership and share the revenue that results.

Without a doubt, employing the advice Jarvis suggests will result in a fundamental shake up of how the local newspaper organisations operate. And undoubtedly there will be people that lose their jobs, but doing nothing will mean the end for many local news organisations, which will ultimately result in the loss of all jobs.

So will newspapers die? Yes I would expect so. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that local news will die with it. Food for thought perhaps.

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  • http://news.bbc.co.uk/technology Darren Waters

    The point isn't that if local newspapers die that local news dies.

    The point IS that if local newspapers die, who then will pay for journalists to write local news to the standards and ethics once required by local papers?

    The business model is dying and with it the required employment that gives rise to local news.

    Jeff Jarvis seems to believe there is "enough journalism out there" to facilitate a sort of hyper-smart aggregation system weaving together paid-for and free content. Really? Who is paying for the journalism to be produced? Because somebody has to.

  • http://www.mumbrella.com.au Tim Burrowes – Mumbr

    Local news in what form though?

    Here's a couple of examples. Back in the early 90s, I worked on a well staffed local paper (it's not any more) in the UK.

    At least twice a week, I'd take the papers down to the fire station, and hang out with them, maybe even play some volleyball.

    There were a lot of hours talking about not much before it started to pay off. But in the end, they started ringing me at home in the middle of night whenever there was a decent newsworthy fire. I'd get out of bed and come and cover it.

    Who's going to pay a journalist to do all that.

    On similar lines, who will pay a journalist to sit in the local court day in and day out covering speeding cases and drunk & disorderlies, so that on the day the town mayor appears in the dock for multimillion fraud there's someone there?

    I wish I had an answer that wasn't depressing…

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  • peterjudd

    As newspapers and conventional subsidised news media fail in the fragmented world of online advertising (it is advertising, not content, that is reshaping our news paradigm), then we face the prospect of far fewer facts finding their way to an audience that seeks truth. While the mob may cheer the lynching of each news organisation biting the dust, what will replace the fact-gathering, often unpopular journalism, that might not sell a newspaper, but stops the mob from lynching the wrong person? Will it be the rise of fact-based blogging?