Reinventing the Newsroom

More Evidence That Local Is the Place to Transform

Posted in Going Local by reinventingthenewsroom on September 16, 2009

The latest Pew Research survey of how Americans view the press is out, and offers more evidence that local coverage is the best focus for newspapers trying to transform themselves for the digital age.

When asked where they get most of their national and international news, 71% of survey respondents said television, little changed from recent years. 42% said the Internet, compared with 24% in September 2007. And 33% said newspapers.

When respondents were asked where they get most local news, television still won with 64% of the vote. But 41% said newspapers, compared with just 17% who said the Internet. And among respondents aged 18-29, the numbers were 67% for TV, 39% for newspapers and 21% for the Internet.

There’s the opportunity — if newspapers will take it.

Discussions of how newspapers lost their competitive advantages often focus on the barriers to entry that have fallen.  The Web allows anyone who wants to be a publisher to be one — you no longer have to buy presses and lots and lots of former trees. But for years the limits of geography also protected newspapers from competition:  Unless you were willing to pay extra for an unsatisfying national edition of some out-of-town paper, your local paper was your default source for most news, from international and national to movie reviews. (This also made the wires invaluable to many papers.)

Now that’s gone: You can read dozens of different papers’ takes on international and national stories and spend the duration of a movie reading its various reviews. With the geographical boundaries down, we have a glut of news in some categories. Within them, competition for readers is national — and increasingly global. Faced with this, digital-first papers should be asking themselves a) if their efforts are good enough to compete nationally; and b) if the expense of a wire service is justified when they could just link to other papers’ efforts.

None of this is a revelation — it underpins Jeff Jarvis’s mantra of “do what you do best and link to the rest,” for instance. But the Pew numbers remind us that it isn’t the rule across all categories of news just yet. When it comes to local news, newspapers still enjoy the protections of geography. And those protections will remain in place — at least when it comes to competing with other newspapers.

But other newspapers aren’t the only source of competition. Neighborhood blogs are springing up everywhere. A bevy of companies are experimenting in an effort to mine the promise of “hyperlocal.”

And the Web itself is changing.

Today’s Web is great for searching globally, but lousy at filtering locally. If I want a flat tire fixed in Brooklyn Heights, it does me no good whatsoever to discover I can get it done really cheaply in Cleveland or that some guy in San Jose is great at it. But this weakness is temporary: Geotagging and location-aware services are driving constant innovations in the local Web, and companies new and old are competing to reap the benefits.

Newspapers’ best chance at transformation is local. As Pew has shown, local is where they still retain readers who otherwise have turned to other sources of news. Local is where the advertising market remains largely untapped. Local is where real-world communities are still searching for a virtual expression. And local is where newspapers still have advantages in institutional knowledge, newsgathering skills and a historically valued place in civic life.

But time is of the essence. Because these advantages won’t last.

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You can read my first column for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center here. I’ll be writing weekly about sportswriting and new media, something that’s dear to my heart as former co-writer of WSJ.com’s Daily Fix column and co-author of Faith and Fear in Flushing. I’ll be writing alongside Dave Kindred and Eric Deggans, which is immensely flattering and daunting in equal measures.

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