Are local newspapers necessary?

Posted in 2013 The Gnovis Blog  |  Tagged ,

There is very little research concerning local newspapers, primarily those with circulations of 10,000 readers or less.  With the status of print journalism changing dramatically, it seems a disservice that this aspect of journalism has been the topic of so little study.  Is it important to study the nature of local newspapers?  Are local newspapers necessary?
In an online Atlantic article, Megan McArdle writes, “We’re witnessing the death of a business model.  And no one has figured out how to pay for hard news.”  Although most are well aware of the current state of journalism and how large, daily newspapers are coping with decreasing incomes (online paywalls, increased online presence, etc.), there is little research on how small newspapers are dealing with many of the same issues. Many do not have the resources to create a substantial online presence, which has been the saving grace of many larger newspapers.
Do local newspapers matter?
One must understand why local newspapers are important; local newspapers play a complex role in communities, they embrace a civic life for the community’s citizens.  Most of a community’s citizens do not realize the role their local newspaper plays; according to a 2011 PEW article, 69 percent of Americans believed the disappearance of their local newspaper would not impact or only minorly impact their ability to receive local information (Rosenstiel & Co.).  Despite this belief, the article states, “Among all adults, newspapers were cited as the most relied-upon source or tied for most relied upon for crime, taxes, local government activities, schools, local politics, local jobs, community/neighborhood events, arts events, zoning information, local social services, and real estate/housing.”  The article continues to explain that the internet was a distant second when considering where people get their local news.
A Time Magazine article by Belinda Luscombe, “What Happens When a Town Loses Its Newspaper?,” considered a study by Princeton University about communities affected by the closing of the Cincinnati Post.  The findings were dire: “voter turnout dropped, fewer people ran for office and more incumbents were reelected.  That is, when there were fewer stories about a given town, its inhabitants seemed to care less about how they’re being governed,” (Luscombe).  This trend is not as prevalent in hyper-local situations (i.e. newspapers which cover smaller populations), but it does take place even when there are only cutbacks.
The survival of local newspapers
Throughout the recession, it seems as if small town newspapers have fared better than some of the larger newspapers.  As part of Stanford University’s “Rural West Initiative,” Geoff McGhee studied how rural newspapers have outshone larger newspapers.  In the article, he notices how rural journalists have to perform many jobs, they are not one-beat writers; one journalist could cover Eagle scouts, queen contests, editorials on the local rec center, and help with the paper being physically published.
He writes, “All of this is in the service of developing a relationship with the local readers that some people say that mainstream journalism has lost, a relationship with all the complications that intimacy and proximity bring,” (McGhee).  He finds that local newspapers have been practicing the “buzzed about” concepts which are now widely popular to talk about, yet still are not implemented, like: hyper-localism, citizen journalism, and advocacy journalism.  Local newspapers do not have as much competition and the news that one may expect to find in a local newspaper simply is not published anywhere online.  The staffs of small newspapers are typically small and efficient, as they have been for the most part since their inception.
He writes that the true threats to local newspapers may be different from those to larger newspapers.  One threat is how demographics of rural areas are shifting. Another threat is the constant scrutiny the U.S. Postal Service receives for free in-county mail delivery, along with the recently over-turned a decision to completely cancel Saturday deliveries.
Looking Deeper
As previously stated, there is very little analytical data on the local newspapers.  There are op-ed pieces and case studies, but there simply is not quantitative data to support these materials.  I am currently conducting a survey to begin the process of creating a database for these very studies.  Look for more blogs on the topic and my findings in the future.
Works Cited
Luscombe, Belinda. “What Happens When a Town Loses Its Newspaper?” N.p., 22 Mar. 2009. Web. 20 Oct. 2013.
McArdle, Megan. “Old Media Blues.” The Atlantic. N.p., 1 July 2009. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.
McGhee, Geoff. “Rural Newspapers Doing Better Than Their City Counterparts.” Rural West Initiative. N.p., 14 July 2011. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.
Rosenstiel, Tom, Amy Mitchell, Kristen Purcell, and Lee Rainie. “How People Learn about Their Local Community.” Perceptions of the Importance of Local Newspapers. N.p., 26 Sept. 2011. Web. 23 Oct. 2013.