When local newspapers aren't local

The badly flawed Shorenstein report arguing that local newspapers are the most seriously threatened by the Internet already has been properly shredded by Jeff Jarvis, but there's another angle that strikes me: sloppy use of the word "local."

I believe that "local" is a powerful asset, not a liability, and that the Shorenstein report has tripped over a lack of precision in the use of that word.

It seems obvious that "regional" is bigger than "local," and "local" is bigger than "hyperlocal." It's not so clear where the lines are.

U.S. newspapers are overwhelmingly "local" (or perhaps more accurately, "regional") in the sense of distribution: of more than 1,400 daily newspapers, only a few are distributed nationwide.

The reasons should be obvious but I'll point them out anyway.

These newspapers evolved in an area of profound geographic isolation. It simply wasn't possible to cover the whole country, or even a major subset of the states, with a single print product distributed in a timely fashion.

While these traditional daily newspapers may have been restricted geographically in their distribution, they were not restricted geographically in their content focus. They developed content-distribution networks (Associated Press and other wires and syndicates). They became powerful tools for people to learn about a broad but distant world. Today's dominant newspaper content model quickly emerged.

As transportation networks evolved, some of those newspapers, particularly those published in larger cities, hopped on board and began distributing regionally, where a region might be part of a state, an entire state, or multiple states.

There was a time when the Kansas City papers were home-delivered over two-thirds of Missouri, when the St. Louis Globe-Democrat was home-delivered throughout Southern Illinois, and when the Minneapolis Tribune was rushed all the way out to the Dakotas every day.

Were such newspapers actually "local?"

Or were they just stand-ins for USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times in an era before we could satfax page images to remote printing plants around the world?

Smaller "local" newspapers never developed such broad distribution networks, but they followed a similar, if scaled-down, content and distribution model.

Now the world has changed, and such newspapers are aggressively cutting back on the geographic reach of their circulation systems.

This began back in the 1990s when I was at the Star Tribune, which using pricing as well as distribution cutbacks to radically trim unprofitable circulation outside the core advertising market. It continues today. The Savannah Morning News, one of my employer's newpapers, recently whacked entire counties from its outlying coverage area, as did the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

But when it comes to content, many newspapers are struggling with the idea of dropping the nonlocal and refocusing the product.

Even though it's obvious that the local newspaper is an obsolescent tool for nonlocal news coverage, those newspapers are carrying a load of aging subscribers who grew up in the old world. Those "loyal core readers" expect the newspaper to provide a great deal of something that just plain doesn't work for the majority of the market. So these newspapers are faced with some difficult choices.

For the largest "local" newspapers, the problem is even worse: When you strip away the global news and look at what's left, you discover that it's not local at all, not by any definition of local used by common people.

The government definition of a "Metropolitan Statistical Area" provides a tool that is convenient for researchers but ultimately misleads, mashing together an assortment of towns and cities that barely interact.

If it takes two or three hours to drive across a "local" area, it's not local. If you live in Fort Worth, news from Plano is not likely to be even remotely interesting to you, because you wouldn't consider it local. Ditto for Alton, Ill., which is not local to Crystal City, Mo.

Newspapers like the Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Minneapolis Star Tribune are hurting not because they're local, but because they're not local enough. And as they try to figure out how to be local, they're discovering they lack the proper tools. They have the wrong staff, the wrong processes, even the wrong presses.

Smaller newspapers are doing much better. The genuinely local, and even better yet, hyperlocal newspapers -- the ones you can pick up and see your life reflected -- are very strong. So the Shorenstein report's claims about local newspapers are off the mark. Not really being local is the problem.


Coming from one of those little towns in Southern Illinois that could get the old Globe-Democrat, I think you're right on here. But it wasn't just the Globe, it was regional papers from cities as modest as Evansville, Ind.

None outsold the local daily, but any of the regional papers offered something ours didn't: a Sunday edition with color comics, coupons and the store specials in the regional department stores of the day. Buying one of those didn't have much to do with "catching up on the news" -- it had everything to do with the paper as an amusement and a shopping utility.

Nowadays, people who choose to live in a town like my home town do so because they deliberately do not want the pluses or minuses of bigger-city lifestyle. They sacrifice choices of restaurants and megamalls for quiet, shorter drives and lower costs of living. Those local papers reflect that lifestyle, largely and wisely ignoring what happens in the rest of the world but reporting almost every little thing that happens in town.

So people in my home town still want their paper. The biggest risk to the model isn't the Internet. It's the Wal-Martification of towns like that: the downtown square has almost no retail left, thanks to the Wal-Mart that's been there more than 30 years. And now the local grocers will soon give way to a Super Wally World with a 24/7/365 supermarket.

... is that it's so damned expensive. Wire copy makes much cheaper spackle between the shrinking number of advertisments. And people want their news for free, just like their TV programs and (now) music.

I agree Steve, there really isn't anything like a solid local news source. Unfortunately as Jim mentioned it can be quite cost prohibitive...

....is great and can be found for free online!!