From the Guardian, a look at the future of local news

ilustratKathleen McLaughlin, whose reporting career has included a stint with the Lee Newspapers state bureau, wrote a great piece for The Guardian about the steady decline of newspapers devoted to covering local news.

The story is full of good, thought-provoking stuff, but here’s the gist of it:

“The real crisis in American journalism is not technological, it’s geographic,” said Tom Rosentiel, fellow at the Brookings Institution who founded and ran for 16 years the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center. “The crisis is that local journalism is shrinking. I wouldn’t say it’s dying but it’s the most threatened.”

This is certainly true in Montana, where a recent study found that people get their news online, but still gravitate most toward the websites of their local papers and television stations. Local press isn’t dead, but it’s fragmented and weakened. Talk to readers, and you’ll find they believe local news these days is both less enticing and less accessible – and thereby less likely to be shared on Facebook, that great master of content.

Rosentiel goes on to explain that the explosion of national and international news means that people are increasingly reading that kind of news, at the same time newspapers covering local issues are cutting back and delivering less and less each day. It’s one of those things newspapers love to call a vicious cycle.

But there is hope. Kathleen focuses on the success of the Flathead Beacon, as I did when it was written up in the Columbia Journalism Review. The Beacon, you may recall, was bankrolled by Maury Povich and in the 10 years of its life has proved to be a really fine addition to the Montana news scene.

Kathleen also gives an oblique nod to Last Best News, which she doesn’t name but links to while describing it as a “well-read and scoop-serving news website.” Hmm. I wonder if we could squeeze that phrase into our logo?

Anyway, Kathleen’s thorough examination of the subject comes at a time when Lee Enterprises, which owns newspapers in Billings, Missoula, Helena, Butte and Hamilton, gets a little smaller all the time.

The Decatur Herald & Review, a Lee newspaper in Illinois, just announced on Monday that it was closing its statehouse bureau. The announcement contained this sad, half-hearted statement from the editor, Chris Coates: “This was not an easy choice. I hope we work something out to re-open our Statehouse operation at some point. But for now, we’ll be filling the gaps and localizing content whenever possible.”

Sadder still, but so perfectly Lee-like, is the fact that Coates just recently took over as editor, writing a column introducing himself to his new readers not even two weeks before having to announce the state bureau closure. I would love to have sat in on his meeting with the publisher: “Welcome to Decatur! Oh, by the way…”

And I must add this: After going to the Herald & Review website and finding a clone of the Gazette website, with all its impossibly cumbersome, madly annoying features, I would like to suggest that before the Lee chain lays off any more reporters, please fire the people who designed those goddamned websites of yours. Thanks.

But I digress. The most encouraging part of Kathleen’s article comes near the end, to wit:

“While Povich is thinking of taking his project statewide online, there aren’t enough civic-minded local journalism advocates across America to save the institution of journalism, one local newspaper at a time. So where do we go from here? Independent digital press, the kind already emerging in Montana, could keep the local press alive.

“I think any enterprising person who values journalism can take it upon themselves for very little money to start their own news site,” he said. “I mean, that’s the future of news in this country.”

I never thought of myself as terribly enterprising, but I certainly fit the “very little money” description. And tomorrow marks the third anniversary of Last Best News, so welcome to the future.

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