On my last trip to Florida, I shared a ride with two employees of the Palm Beach Post, and heard their stories of imminent cutbacks, layoffs and buyouts in order to keep the paper afloat. That is sad news, not only because real people are losing real jobs, but because it’s another blow to the institution of the local newspaper.
Stories like this are commonplace around the country as dead-tree print loses revenue due to the forces that comprise digital media, collapsing local economies, and the dispersion of an ever-decreasing ad revenue pool. Many bloggers seem to be rejoicing about this. Be careful what you wish for.
I’m speaking not of special interest enthusiast magazines that get so put upon by bloggers (especially fly fishing rags), but of newspapers and the role they perform in society. Because local news gathering, men and women with notebooks actually going out and talking to people, is the cornerstone of our free press. More than CNN or Fox or the network news, more than the New York Times, USA Today, or any uber paper, what local news gatherers report on affects our daily lives.
Who is going to go to the local zoning meetings, or cover the plans of the water district? Bloggers? Who is going to keep track of budgets and sift through countless faceless bureaucratic programs? Some guy on his Facebook page? Newsday, the local paper of my adopted home area, recently uncovered several instances of school pension fraud, be it from private lawyers receiving State pensions or school administrators retiring to collect a pension and then getting rehired at full salary. The paper basically forced the State to clean house and better scrutinize its educational system. Who is going to care about these things if local newspapers disappear? Who is going to think to look for these problems on a local level or even know where or how to look?
You could argue it will all shake out over the web, and local news reporting will just migrate there in some adapted form. Really? The blessing and curse of web content is that each and every link can be scrutinized and quantified for every second of the day and when the goal is to attract the most eyeballs, not provide the most necessary information, things go askew. One of the Palm Beach Post employees mentioned that what gets the most hits by far on the paper’s website is the Booking Blotter, a collection of jail mug shots displayed on the top right of the site’s front page. Is this what we want our local news coverage reduced to?
Local papers better do a better job to remain relevant, but if they disappear, will anyone else really be watching what needs to be watched? If anyone thinks they can do it without the help of an organized, institutionalized free local press, more power to him.