Good News, Bad News

Newspapers once articulated regional differences. In the Internet age, other affinities trump geography.

This is a golden age for news junkies. You can access hundreds of newspapers-not to mention magazines, e-zines and a plethora of other sources-on the Web for free. Most mornings, I download the Washington Post for its political coverage. When reading one newspaper isn’t enough, I read the San Jose Mercury News for its technology reporting, the New York Times for its international coverage and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to reclaim my southern roots. Though I reside in Massachusetts, I almost never read the Boston Globe. Not much of interest to me there.

I read these various papers in search of local differences and regional perspectives. But will these viewpoints prevail? We may be watching America’s strong tradition of city newspapers gasping in the snare of the Web’s more geographically dispersed communications. Local papers face stiff competition on the Internet, vying for the attention of not only news enthusiasts but sports fans and movie buffs already gleaning their information from the likes of ESPN and Entertainment Weekly. The American news media are facing a moment of transition, an unavoidable evolution. And though they desperately try to define a niche for themselves, many will find their days numbered.

America’s newspapers have their roots in our country’s ideologies and geography. While other nations are dominated by competing national papers, America’s expansiveness made national papers impractical. A change occurred in the mid-19th century, with the introduction of the telegraph. It enabled the rapid distribution of news, and thereby entailed a more objective mode of writing, so that stories could be reproduced without regard to local context.

The Web is completing the task the telegraph began. Today, much national news comes over the Internet, resulting in less local inflection of the news. Americans now get more of their news from national sources such as the Associated Press than from local media outlets. With the refocus on national rather than local news, regional papers have slashed their staffs or closed their doors.

Perhaps the big city newspaper has simply outlived its usefulness. The average American moves 11 times over the course of a lifetime, often crossing regions in search of employment opportunities. Why read a city paper when you have so little long-term investment in local communities?

The economic base for local newspapers is also withering. Historically, local department stores were the biggest purchasers of advertising space, but national franchises are more apt to benefit from buying ad space in national publications. Classified advertising is migrating toward the Web, since it allows sellers to place their goods before the largest possible buying public.

Defenders of regional newspapers argue that they are our only hope against the homogenization of information and the concentration of media ownership. Yet in many American cities, rival papers have folded, leaving only one daily paper-and increasingly, those papers are controlled by national syndicates.

To survive national competition,  daily papers are going to have to rethink how they do their business. New publications defined through affinity or demographic groups will arise, built around “virtual communities.” The African-American and immigrant press has long followed this pattern: for example, half the readers of the black-owned Chicago Defender were outside of Chicago. On the Web, new kinds of niche publications will become more common.

Other papers may exploit regional advantages through specialization. The Boston Globe could expand its coverage of higher education, the Los Angeles Times its treatment of entertainment and the San Jose Mercury News its reporting of high-tech industries. Much as school districts create magnet programs to offer educational opportunities that could not be provided within any one local school, newspapers might develop magnet sections that command the interest of anyone who wants to be in the know on particular topics.

These trends may well improve the overall quality of American journalism, offering deeper coverage of specific sectors. Readers will be able to cherry pick the most relevant or interesting information from multiple papers. I already do it every morning, but my choices could become better. Some Web-based publications, referred to as “para-sites,” filter the news for their niche readerships, linking to relevant stories drawn from many different publications. Slashdot, which targets young technically aware readers, is a good example.

Let us now pause to mourn the passing of the city newspaper, once the voice and embodiment of our regional differences. And let us now hope that the various new forms of journalism that stand poised to take its place will more fully reflect our modern lifestyles and the diversity of our contemporary culture.

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