The painful decline of the daily city newspaper is well chronicled by now, so much so that there is even an entire website dedicated to watching newspapers die. The causes are myriad (see the footnote below), but they can generally be tied to A) the internet; and B) changing patterns in the consumption of information.
Papers have tried a variety of approaches to counter these trends, with most of these approaches based on changing websites (paid, free, semi-paid!) and cutting costs. Few of these approaches, however, have even touched on content strategy. As regular Thoughtbasket readers know, I firmly believe that content is king. My thoughts on what city newspapers should do are highly influenced by my reaction to my local news market, San Francisco. SF’s historical daily, The Chronicle is, and always has been, a terrible paper. The Chronicle’s website, SFGate, is even worse than the paper.
My advice is pretty simple: relentless focus on local journalism. Cover city hall, cover local issues, cover local teams. Big parade for Columbus Day? Cover it. District attorney owns a strip club on the side? Cover it. Downtown real estate prices dropping? Cover it. Cut costs by getting rid of all non-local coverage. A city paper doesn’t need any national or world coverage. License a few AP stories to give your readers the big picture basics, but certainly don’t have a Washington bureau. Maybe, if your city is big enough (ie. Chicago, LA and not much else), you have one reporter in DC to cover what your Congressmen do. In the same vein, maybe you have a reporter in your state capital, but purely to cover local issues. Leave broad coverage of the state capital to that city’s paper. If your readers want state, national or world news, they know how to find it: on the internet!
Do people care about local coverage? Absolutely. Think about the old axiom that all politics is local. Because people care a lot more about the pot holes near their homes than they do about Washington DC discussions of foreign aid. In my city, San Francisco, there are not one but TWO new papers that have launched purely to provide deep local coverage. Both are non-profits, it’s true, but they clearly sense a consumer need or they wouldn’t have bothered to raise the money required to launch. And that is in addition to the two local alternative weeklies, one of which has repeatedly (like the two stories summarized here) broken major stories about local politics that the Chronicle has missed. Plus you have AOL’s Patch, which provides hyper-local coverage. Moreover, the old afternoon paper, The Examiner, is still around, although kept alive through some payment deal with the Chronicle. The presence of all these local news sources tells you that people want to read local coverage. The question is why the big legacy local papers, who should own this space, don’t cover it.
Some people say that you can’t make money on local news because good local coverage will eventually cause discomfort to the powerful and wealthy in the community, who will then pull advertising. Certainly a strong local paper will, at some point, have to cause some pain to the city’s power brokers. Since most cities are run by a few wealthy families, a couple of businesses, and real estate interests, everybody knows what the sensitivities are. But it’s exactly those sensitivities – corrupt politicians, incompetent civil servants, venal and debauched businessmen – that readers crave. Readers want to know the truth about the powerful, and as long as a paper speaks that truth, it will have readers. And if a paper has readers, there will always be advertisers ready to pay to reach those readers.
Footnote with more specific causes of newspaper decline:
- The end of the local department store
- Decreased public acceptance of journalistic “authority”
- Family dynasties seeking cash instead of a legacy (hello Bancrofts)
- A generation that prefers screens to paper
- Lower margins for car dealers