What would we do if local news died?
Think about the place you grew up. Were there big, local stories that everybody knew about? Probably. Did national media report these stories? Maybe some, but never all of them. So, who was reporting them?
It’s the local newspapers and television stations that report on the stories closest to you — the good, the bad and the ugly. They’re probably the reason you know about the crazy weather that’s about to hit you, or the family starting a brand new local business, or the kid who just won the regional spelling bee. They’re also most likely the reason you know what’s going on in your community and your local government.
Reporters transcribe all of this information into narratives accessible to people in the present and the future. Basically, they write local history. Some of the stories that local media, and especially newspapers, capture are completely original and would otherwise leave few traces. Unlike stories involving press releases from organizations and government, these are stories reporters spotlight that haven’t been uncovered before.
All these stories paint a bigger picture about your local community and help build a social fabric. You and your new neighbor might not know a thing about each other, but you probably heard about that huge car crash down the street last week and can start a conversation — that’s where community comes in.
But here’s the problem. Local media is becoming a luxury of larger communities. More than half of residents in rural communities say local news doesn’t cover their stories, while two-thirds of urban residents say the news covers theirs, according to a Pew Research Center report in April. Shrinking coverage areas are the result of shrinking newsrooms due to financial struggles exacerbated by the internet. To put this plainly, Pew Research Center found in March that only 14% of Americans say they pay for local news.
So, what happens if local news shrinks so much that it no longer exists?
During my stint as a reporter for a small weekly paper in Anacortes, Wash., (a town on an island with a population of about 16,000) I was given the task of flipping through archives once a week to find interesting clips for our “Looking Back” section. Cherished by Anacortes American readers, this section of the paper shared clips from the news published that week going decade-by-decade starting in the early 1900s — though we were missing 1938. This exercise unearthed some jewels, like a description of a drunken celebration at the end of WWII.
“After the parade and patriotic program the noise continued to increase until it reached a maximum late at night. Many sane and dignified citizens are now trying to remember everything they did Monday.” — Anacortes American, Nov. 14 1948
Looking through old news, I became interested in what else our archives held. Other stories I read were substantial to local history and even local lore. For instance, on Sept. 7, 1899, a lawyer named David Woodbury was shot and killed in a building that still stands in downtown Anacortes today.
Known as the Platt Building, it housed Woodbury’s law office, the Anacortes American newspaper and the City Attorney’s office, among others. A man named Alfred Hamilton, who was well-known for bad behavior, had a run-in with the City Marshal at a nearby barbershop for threatening to kill someone — drunk and holding a gun. The City Marshal went to the Platt building to get a warrant for Hamilton’s arrest from the City Attorney, but Hamilton followed him, and that’s when the Anacortes American editor Douglass Allmond entered the scene. Hamilton pointed his gun at the editor, and then David Woodbury came out of his office to investigate the commotion. Sadly, he stepped right in front of a bullet.
If it weren’t for news stories covering all of this, available in the archives of the local weekly newspaper with a few thousand readers, this story could have been lost. If there’s no local news, what will we look back on 100 years from now?
When I first started at the paper, I was optimistic. I thought that local news organizations could adapt to the digital world and find new ways to pull in revenue. But after a few months, I started to see a more realistic picture. If local news continues operating on old business models — relying on advertisements (primarily print) to subsidize the cost of cheap subscriptions — I’m not sure they can survive.
There are some savvy local news startups that have spurred the optimism in me again, but these are few and far between. These organizations are still subject to the same struggles of getting people to pay for subscriptions, and whether you distribute news in print, digitally or both, that’s the biggest problem facing the news industry today.
Readers expect cheap news and thriving local media organizations. About 71% of Americans believe their local news outlets are doing fine financially, but in reality, newspaper revenue has declined by 67% since 2005, and TV news has seen a 17% drop, according to the Pew Research Center. The drops are primarily in ad revenues, which has kept the news industry afloat while the internet made consumers think news is supposed to be free.
Local news is too important to die, but the road to financial recovery isn’t clear yet. In the meantime, we should all do what we can to support it.