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Simulating Local News

Over the past few weeks, details about a plan at the New York Times to create ‘local’ editions of the NYT across the country have been leaking out. First, there was word of some sort of collaboration between the Times and Berkeley’s J-School out in the Bay Area. Yesterday, some whispers about a similar project in Chicago were soft-released. Essentially, it sounds like the NYT is getting ready to launch editions of the print paper that will be tailored to specific communities. Such ‘zoning’ was a trendy/common strategy for major dailies over the past two decades (the South Jersey edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, for example) but would be a new tactic for a nationally-distributed paper. Solid information on this is scarce, but it sounds like the approach boils down to this, replicated in cities across the country:

Plans for the San Francisco edition call for adding to the paper, twice a week, two additional pages of news about Northern California. At first, the added content will be produced by The Times’ own writers and editors. But eventually, the plan, as in Chicago, is to turn the production over to a local partner. 

One of my primary academic interests is in the intersection of local media and local politics. And I habitually read the NYT – true ever since I started gradually shifting from the back of the Monday Business section (the sports extra) to the front of it (the Information Industries supplement) as a 12 year-old. So, as you might guess, I am intrigued by these rumblings out of 620 Eighth Avenue. And I’m really not sure that such ‘local’ editions are a good idea. My knee-jerk reaction is that this sounds a lot like a bad idea that killed radio. Brief tangent: in 1996, the Feds dropped some restrictions on radio station ownership which allowed a single company to own hundreds, or as it turned out, more than a thousand stations from coast to coast. Clear Channel Communications took advantage of this & amassed about 1500 stations in short order. The idea was: people across the country like similar music (at least within certain genres) so there must be economies of scale that can be achieved by building a mega-conglomerate. One of these economies was to centralize production – to Tulsa, if memory serves – of ‘local’ broadcasts across the country. Think, “Helllooo Seattle, it sure is a bea-yoo-ti-ful day out there!” …as the listener at home in WA walks through rain sans umbrella because that’s what they do. End result: homogeneous radio that provides no real service to the community.And, as it turned out, the economics of the Clear Channel model didn’t work out so great either. An offput audience looked elsewhere for music & local business were priced out of advertising.

With the NYT initiative, I have two concerns. First, I don’t think it’s really a wise investment of resources. Yes, the print edition is still where most of the company’s revenue comes from. And maybe some ‘local’ content will goose circulation in the communities that are targeted. But, I would suspect that it’s not enough local content to convince subscribers from the Chicago Sun Times that truly care about local news to switch. And I think that most of the folks that are getting the NYT across the country are getting it now because they want the national/international/business/etc. coverage & this won’t really register with them. So, if they’re keeping their subscriptions now, adding this won’t make much of a difference either way in retaining their business. (I should note that zoned editions of papers like the Inquirer never seemed to do much for the bottom line.) At best, this won’t cost the NYT much because they’re pursuing a fairly low-risk strategy of cultivating local partners. (And, if there is a highlight to this plan, it probably lies in the innovative attempts at cultivating a new model for local news production/distribution.) But, to me, this still smells like fresh paint on the deck chairs: the folks at the NYT need to figure out how to monetize the web. Everything else, at this point, is a distraction. If they’re not careful, Carlos Slim is going to sidle on in & sell that fancy building out from under ’em.

My second question is whether or not this is ‘good’ for local news. At some level, this is a bullet aimed at the major dailies across the country that are already on life support. If subscribers do jump from the SF Chronicle and Examiner en masse, those papers are toast. And instead of having papers that provided page upon page of local content – hard news, arts coverage, op-eds – every day, you end up with a paltry 4 pages of local content a week. Communities and their citizens would end up clear losers in this scenario – and it really probably wouldn’t take that much of a shift of subscribers and advertisers to end up with this result. As I wrote above, I don’t really think this will happen. But I am also concerned about the idea that local news can be reduced to a minor twice-weekly supplement. Downplaying its significance in this way is problematic: local news matters because local politics matter (and for other reasons as well). Schools, crime, development, corruption – there’s more going on in every city than 2 pages can handle. The Bay Area project is well-funded and well-connected, but production is only one side of the equation. Consumption of local news is critical as well, and while the thought of new media pioneers may be that they’ll use the NYT as one of many avenues to reaching an audience, I think they might find that the audience takes its two pages and moves on. In my research, I’m starting to ask whether people are aware that they’re skipping out on local news or not – and I’m afraid they’re not. Making people feel informed when they truly aren’t is not a good thing.

There may be no way to stop local news from turning into just another niche information product, but I hope there’s at least a fight over this that happens aside from the descent of major dailies. The old way of publishing a newspaper is certainly over: it costs too much and is no longer appreciated enough by the audience. Having a reporter and photographer for the same story? Slow down, fancy-pants: here’s an iPhone with a digital recorder and a camera. Do it all. In this transition, local news is truly threatened. There are people that are concerned about this – the blogosphere is filled with them – but there may not be enough people at home who care. Reducing the profile of local news to the level of a weekly supplement? Dangerous. Still, though this experiment may prove to be little more than a blip on the radar, the attempt at innovation is positive & noted. Hopefully it will end well.

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