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Admitting that local news might be a (small) niche product

Today, David Carr of the NYT wrote a piece about a long, foundation-funded report on the future of journalism. Nope, not the Knight Commission report I wrote about last week. Another report – this one out of Columbia’s J School & co-authored by eminent communication scholar, Michael Schudson. You need a scorecard for these things…

Anyways, today’s report from Columbia is a little more focused than the Knight report: it’s goal is to save American journalism, not fully tend to the information needs of communities. And, it’s co-written by Schudson, who brings a very nice historical perspective to the table. (I don’t know much about the co-author, Leonard Downie Jr., other than the fact that he was a newspaperman.) Rather than 15 recommendations, this report has 6 – summarized by Carr as:

Tinkering with the tax structure to accommodate nonprofit status for news-gathering organizations, persuading philanthropic foundations to fill the funding gap in more permanent ways, involving universities in news gathering, and opening up databases to make them more useful for both pro and pro-am efforts…

And two more:

Reorienting public radio and television to provide local news, historically not a big interest of public broadcasters…[And the other recommendation that will kick up some dust proclaims that it’s time for government to start funding local news, much in the way it enables the arts, humanities and sciences

Carr’s conclusion neatly echoes the conclusion to the post I wrote for Next American City last week – these are great ideas, but…good luck. I’m most interested in the recommendation that public broadcasters pick up the local news slack. There’s been some movement towards this in Philadelphia, and I have a few thoughts.

First, this seems so obvious – shouldn’t these organizations already be doing this? At any rate, in Philly, WHYY recently hired Chris Satullo away from the Inquirer and essentially said they were doing so specifically to raise their profile in the local news environment. So far, I’ve heard Satullo guest host a few WHYY programs and I can find a smattering of writing and other content from him, but otherwise I haven’t seen a big change in WHYY’s local news production. The station has partnered with the Daily News/Inquirer folks to produce a few blogs – notably It’s Our Money – but the site that should be really at the center of WHYY’s efforts and is actually hosted through their website – It’s Our City – seems to be barely limping along…The Columbia folks are right: public broadcasters are stable institutions that could support their communities with better local news. And they have some advantages right now: a surfeit of available talent, some established resources (like functioning, high-profile websites), and less of a problem with legacy costs than local newspapers. But, apparently, it’s not so easy: the WHYY folks seem to have the right goal in mind…but getting the results is a challenge.

Just because WHYY seems to be off to a slow start doesn’t mean this idea is impossible. But I can’t help but wonder if this stumbling is partially because of a problem that the authors of these save-journalism reports always seem to dodge: the audience for local news might not be there. It may have never been there – local news was just a bonus good that came attached to the weather, sports, and TV listings. (To say nothing of the classifieds, funnies, and coupons!) If the metrics on WHYY’s website showed that It’s Our City was on fire, I can’t help but think that the staff at WHYY is sharp enough to pump up the blog’s production. But…maybe the audience just isn’t there. There’s been so much focus on the production side of the local news equation that the consumption side seems like it’s been completely forgotten. Of course, this is amazing because the crisis is really driven by the departure of the audience from the print (and broadcast) local news products.

The Knight Commission report does consider the capacities of individuals – media literacy is included amongst its recommendations – but somebody really needs to put some time into considering what it’ll take to get people to actually pay attention to local news. I’d argue that, even more than the decline of journalism, this is the real crisis… Maybe I’m wrong – maybe WHYY was just a little cash poor and couldn’t hire the staff needed to run It’s Our City. Maybe the audience is there. But if its not, and local news truly is a small niche product, then we’ve got some real questions to answer relating to the practice of our democracy. How are we going to get enough information to citizens so that they can make effective leadership choices for their communities? How will public officials be held in check if they don’t have to fear widespread knowledge of their misdoings – even if they are reported somewhere? How will cities be able to attract citizens to participate in public-private partnerships without a robust means of communication? And finally, how can we convince citizens that they need to actively seek local political information when they’ve likely never done so before?

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