For many, the local newspaper isn't dying – it's already dead

The doomsday scenario has been on everyone’s mind, including some at SXSWi, since the revenue/circulation has dropped through the floor and the brilliant mind of Clay Shirky articulated “thinking the unthinkable.”

The scenario, in short, is what will happen to a city when the last major newspaper dies?

Who covers our city? Who becomes our watchdog? What happens to our community? Who tells our story?

I would propose that this scenario, in many aspects, has already happened.

NOTE: I’m not saying this to offend or be rude or for shock value or to make anyone feel guilty… I just felt that someone should state what seems obvious.

Okay, here goes: If you are white, and probably a male, you may not have noticed that we’ve been living in this doomsday scenario for years, if not decades.

For African Americans, Native Americans, Asian, Latino… or gays… or under 25… or female… they know that their communities have been, and continue to be, routinely left out of their newspaper. They typically make the news for holidays, crime or food.

For many of them, newspapers aren’t dying… they’re already dead.

At SXSWi, attendees of the Online News of Tomorrow session couldn’t help but notice that all the panelists were white males.

Look, here’s the reality. If your news gathering staff does not reflect the diversity of your community, then you made it nearly impossible for them to accurately cover that community. That’s the thinking behind NAHJ’s Parity Project.

Let me give you an example:

I worked at a small newspaper in a agricultural town that was predominately Mexican. I believe something like 80 percent. The staff was 95 percent white at the time… they knew the diversity of their community and did everything in their power to try to report/reflect it in their pages… this included hiring translators.

When I joined the staff for the summer, my “ability” to speak Spanish easily open doors that they often could not. And, to be less than modest, I think my stories beat the snot out of the competition by the simple fact I could relate to the community and do better reporting.

So, if the community doesn’t routinely see itself in the paper, why would they bother to read it, let alone buy it? For that community, again, newspapers aren’t dying… they’re already dead.

Think about this:

Let’s say the great Seattle paper and my former home, The Seattle Times, decides to reach out to the large Latino community. Many people know that diversity is highly valued at The Times.

Let’s say that for one day, to reach out to the Latino community, The Times publishes an all Spanish-language edition. Hell, let’s say five days.

In addition to pissing off its readers and getting a ton of canceled subscriptions, the experiment would be a total failure. Why? The Latino community would never know The Times was publishing in Spanish. The community already knows they haven’t been in the paper’s pages before the five days, and probably won’t be there after the five days.

To the Latino community, the largest city paper isn’t dying… it’s already dead to them.

So what does that mean? What has happened in this scary scenario?

The last time I visited a local taqueria in Seattle, I found about four Spanish-language newspapers chock full of ads. That’s not including the one mailed to me in a plastic sleeve.

The community didn’t wait for the newspaper to tell their stories or cover their struggles, they did it themselves. Throw in the Web, and you’ll see more coverage pop up.

Think about this:

The industry recently applauded Mission [email protected], the hyper-local project by UC Berkeley, the Ford Foundation and other donors. In their mission statement they say they “believes that by covering a neighborhood fairly and thoroughly, we can build community and a sustainable model for quality journalism.”

Without a doubt, this is a innovative project and certainly worth supporting. But before we praise them for swooping in and covering this “ignored” community, let’s put it in some context.

For some 40 years, the Latino community in the Mission District has had its stories told, not by the San Francisco Chronicle, but by El Tecolote. The ethnic paper was there before the gentrification of the Mission and hopefully they survive to continue to tell their community’s stories. It’s even possible that they survive the Chronicle.

For many in our diverse community, the newspapers aren’t dying… they’re already dead. And while one can argue whether or not they are missed, it’s undeniable that the community has adapted on its own.

Thoughts?

About Robert Hernandez

Robert Hernandez, aka WebJournalist, is an assistant professor at USC Annenberg. Hernandez has been working in Web journalism for more than a decade. He has worked for seattletimes.com, SFGate.com, eXaminer.com, La Prensa Gr

Comments

  1. To pile on: The same scenario’s in play even for white readers… who passionately follow beats undercovered or ignored by daily papers. Niche media grew so quickly online serving areas of interest poorly covered by undertrained or underexperienced beat reporters, or not covered at all.

    Unlike Robert’s examples, lack of niche coverage is just a partial loss of news to these communities – not the total lack that he decsribes. But, often, that’s enough to push someone to canceling the paper when money gets tight.

  2. Robert –

    Thanks for this post! I definitely agree that many news organizations fail to build a lasting, meaningful relationship with their community because they simply don’t reflect it. Journalists must always ask themselves how they could be relevant and helpful. Anything short would be the death of any news organization.

    As part of the team that worked on Mission [email protected], I’ll say that we continue to connect with our audience in different ways, including having posts available in both Spanish and English (and if we could, heck, I’m sure it would be in more lanuages!)I was able to get access to stories because I was able to speak Spanish and establish trust. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Juan Gonzales, the founder of El Tecolote. I definitely agree with you Robert – He’s served the community better than the mainstream media has.

    I wouldn’t necessarily say that small-publications haven’t had their share of challenges, however. Heck, the day I spoke with Juan was the same day that AsianWeek, another small community newspaper, went all online and ceased paper publication because of financial hardship.

    Part of why El Tecolote has been successful, Gonzales might argue, is the fact that he’s biased (that opens up another can of worms to be sure!) But he did draw on being relevant as well. Check out our conversation here:

    http://www.thismexicanamericanlife.com/audio/TMAL_gonzales.mp3

    And, to be fair, I went through some of their 990s and they’ve lost A LOT of money (I think maybe even half) They rely on money made from their arts and culture fundraiser events. When that money dries up, funds for the paper dries up. I’m not so sure they make profits from ads. A source told me they often run some ads to non-profits free of charge because “it’s the right thing to do.”

    I will say, Latinos love print! I know I do! Gonzales, and many others, have discussed the digital divide but when will we catch up with the gap? Whether El Tecolote, or any relevant news organization covering their community, is online or print one thing is for sure: Be relevant.

  3. Robert –

    Thanks for this post! I definitely agree that many news organizations fail to build a lasting, meaningful relationship with their community because they simply don’t reflect it. Journalists must always ask themselves how they could be relevant and helpful. Anything short would be the death of any news organization.

    As part of the team that worked on Mission [email protected], I’ll say that we continue to connect with our audience in different ways, including having posts available in both Spanish and English (and if we could, heck, I’m sure it would be in more lanuages!)I was able to get access to stories because I was able to speak Spanish and establish trust. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Juan Gonzales, the founder of El Tecolote. I definitely agree with you Robert – He’s served the community better than the mainstream media has.

    I wouldn’t necessarily say that small-publications haven’t had their share of challenges, however. Heck, the day I spoke with Juan was the same day that AsianWeek, another small community newspaper, went all online and ceased paper publication because of financial hardship.

    Part of why El Tecolote has been successful, Gonzales might argue, is the fact that he’s biased (that opens up another can of worms to be sure!) But he did draw on being relevant as well. Check out our conversation here:

    http://www.thismexicanamericanlife.com/audio/TMAL_gonzales.mp3

    And, to be fair, I went through some of their 990s and they’ve lost A LOT of money (I think maybe even half) They rely on money made from their arts and culture fundraiser events. When that money dries up, funds for the paper dries up. I’m not so sure they make profits from ads. A source told me they often run some ads to non-profits free of charge because “it’s the right thing to do.”

    I will say, Latinos love print! I know I do! Gonzales, and many others, have discussed the digital divide but when will we catch up with the gap? Whether El Tecolote, or any relevant news organization covering their community, is online or print one thing is for sure: Be relevant.

  4. 70.42.80.3 says:

    I don’t know, Robert, when I started The Printed Blog last year, we got an incredible response, all over the world. We were the first (well, attributed, anyway) print newspaper to be entirely comprised of blogs and other online content. I shuttered the business in July, not because the model was flawed, but because we grew too quickly. I legitimately believe that the model can change, and print newspapers can live on in a new form. In fact, I’m being encouraged right now to restart the publication… http://www.theprintedblog.com and blog.theprintedblog.com if you’re interested. Josh, Founder and Publisher, The Printed Blog

  5. Metro newspapers long ago lost interest in serving readers who don’t have disposable income to spend with upscale advertisers — and that’s all they have left in the way of display advertisers since discounters like Wal-Mart, which rarely advertise, displaced stores where less-than-affluent readers used to shop. Ethnicity matters way less to publishers than household income.

    That metros have discarded the less-than-affluent is clear from the analysis of Pew statistics that I presented in my keynote address at the 2006 Media Giraffe conference on the future of journalism.

    And just this week, Mary Lou Fulton of The California Endowment has blogged a different but powerful analysis of how newspapers have abandoned poor communities.

  6. One advantage newspapers used to have was that they had something you couldn’t get anywhere else, but which was desirable and which you’d pay money for.

    The Web has removed two of these advantages, but what has really done newspapers in is that they are simply not catching the public imagination. When was the last time any of us were EXCITED about reading a newspaper, for example?

    The Freesheet model may simply be the only game in town circa 2020. In the UK, we have a pretty good free business daily in London called City AM and the decision by the owners of the London Evening Standard to give it away free has driven its circulation through the roof without much change in its content. This means consuming the news differently – it’s inherently throwaway, but also immediately accessible with the tactile and aesthetic advantages of a print artefact.

    But this doesn’t answer the maim question – is there a place for news you pay for, and if so, what is it? No answer is presently forthcoming, and the paid-fors are presently decidedly unsexy. (Apart from the Daily Sport, obviously.)

  7. There is a sense of loss that goes with the passing of the local printed paper; but in my own city, I have noticed a flourishing of digital news – rarely authoritative, often quirky.

    These sites, dedicated to local issues, while lacking in traditional journalistic methods, pursue issues with a passion that hasn’t been seen in print for decades. I think that the younger generation has taken to the news in their own way: very specific, “niche” digital content.

  8. @Alexander Hay “When was the last time any of us were EXCITED about reading a newspaper, for example?” WOW, powerful statement. I tend to enjoy non-award-driven stories.

    Let me ask the crowd a follow up question… If we agree that many news outlets (not just newspapers) and Metro are disconnected from our communities, what is the cause, in your opinion? And, what, if anything, can we — reporters, editors, newsroom leadership — do to address this?

    For me, I think there needs to be new leadership that understands the Web philosophy that is very community focused… I fully believe that NAHJ

  9. @ Robert Hernandez – “Let me ask the crowd a follow up question… If we agree that many news outlets (not just newspapers) and Metro are disconnected from our communities, what is the cause, in your opinion? And, what, if anything, can we — reporters, editors, newsroom leadership — do to address this?”

    The main problem is that news media people aren’t quite like everyone else. To sum up, they are ‘different’. They speak a different language, act differently, view the world differently and act in a fashion that can alienate their audiences. Being a breed apart can create quite a big gulf.

    Citizen journalism does, however, have the potential to undo these barriers, if it brings in people who would not ordinarily work in the media or do not share the faintly incestuous air that many journalists cultivate.

    More importantly, if it gets journalists talking directly with their readers and having an open discussion with them then a greater engagement with the media would become more likely. Local newspapers may now have to emphasise the former over the latter.

  10. Metro newspapers long ago lost interest in serving readers who don’t have disposable income to spend with upscale advertisers — and that’s all they have left in the way of display advertisers since discounters like Wal-Mart, which rarely advertise, displaced stores where less-than-affluent readers used to shop. Ethnicity matters way less to publishers than household income.