I was very fortunate to be part of the under-generation of journalists who came of age shortly after the first dot-com bubble burst.
During that era – that was the early days – I worked with senior reporters and editors who five years ago could nostalgically tell of the good old days, when salaries were good, budgets were plentiful, readers didn’t know what Twitter was or that democracy would somehow depend on what we reported, thought and wrote. We were still close enough to Clinton’s enduring prosperity that the pre-Internet structures were more or less in place: big offices, decent staff, healthy editions, and respectable readership.
But the advertising money had already started to bleed. The huge move-out ad for the good old boy’s local dealership shrank. The editor’s golf vacation was more modest. Everything was just a little shabbier. I consider it the “Gray Gardens” era of journalism – the large, sprawling Fourth Estate is beginning to fall into disrepair.
So I saw up close the beginning of the collapse of the journalism business model, triggered by the Web 1.0 people who had just blown their own. It will be fine, I thought.
Since I worked mostly for the smaller weekly alternative newspapers dedicated to the city’s publication, I thought we were a bit isolated from the worst as our past earnings depended on “vice” ads – first for sex work and then for cannabis and Kratom – and the classifieds: looking for a job, apartment, lover, couch. Everyone will always need this! Yes, as long as the internet never figures out how to sell drugs, sex, or classifieds, we’ll be fine.
Bad case of unbundling
I’m writing about all of this because the two alternative weeklies I’ve spent most of my career in announced that they would be closing last week. One of them is Richmond’s Style Weekly, another victim of the hedge fund Alden Capital’s acquisition and vampiric strategy for media consolidation. The other is San Francisco’s SF Weekly, which was bought last year by a real estate investor who reportedly saw the Weekly only as a bonus when buying its sister newspaper, SF Examiner. (You call it a break, but when did “break” ever mean “come back better than ever!”?)
These are two 40 year old newspapers in two big cities: broken. They join the 2,100 U.S. newspapers that went under in the last 15 years, leaving 1,800 communities with no local news source as many television reporters learn what is going on through the morning paper.
SF Weekly and Style Weekly suffered from the usual complaints: Google and Facebook devour advertising revenue, hedge funds cut corners and so-called “unbundling” – where the Swiss Army Knife is the purpose of a newspaper (politics, entertainment, food, opinion, advertising, etc.) has exploded all over the internet.
As the Reuters / Oxford News Report 2021 revealed, the unbundling of local news means that “the value of traditional local and regional news media is increasingly limited to a small number of topics such as local politics and crime”. Unsurprisingly, people go elsewhere, such as dedicated websites or social media, to “get other local information such as weather, housing, jobs and ‘activities’ that used to be part of the local news media”.
(Meanwhile, interest in news has generally declined, which the report attributes to a few things, including public fatigue from the depressing pandemic updates and conservatives leaving office after Trump left office.)
I heard that both weekly papers plan wakeups to celebrate, to complain. Certainly toasts will be made to the tall, ink-colored ladies, local messages will be undone by unbundling. But perhaps we should all raise a glass to the unbundling of the idea of the “local”, the idea of the place.
Local news is dying because “local” is out of date
Perhaps among all these economic considerations, a deeper cause of the death of local journalism is the death of the “local”. Strange to say, but “being somewhere” can become obsolete.
There are at least two reasons for this:
- National politics and cultural war issues contaminate all communities. Would Huntington Beach, California’s Orange County, be a hotbed of mask resistance if masking didn’t epitomize a wider political struggle? Is Texas somehow uniquely affected by abortion that it “needs” a new law?
In the sense of “meaning”, places are only relevant to journalism insofar as they reflect larger trends. Cities are like manhole covers: they allow access to the cultural undercurrents. In other words: local places are the places where the national happens.
- “Local” no longer means “geographical”. You may spend most of your time exchanging likes with a like-minded political community on Facebook or diving into conflicts between cultural wars on Twitter. You could think of your “real” home as a selection of Twitch streams or an online fandom that just physically congregates at far-flung conventions.
Conceptual communities based on shared ideas challenge the idea of communities based on proximity, shared economy, and the existential fact of sharing sunrises and sunsets. Well, churches, parks, grocery stores – these are just places to check your phone.
Nextdoor won’t save us
The remaining locally focused energy is typically highly criminal, as Nextdoor shows. Journalists weigh up whether it fills the void that local news leaves, and sure it is possible to find examples of its usefulness in alerting the community to an outbreak of rabid bats or used ottomans, but most of the time it appears to be one To be able to grasp grievances about class, race or building height. There is no investigative reporting and few standards for finding out what is true and what is headstrong hiss. In other words, it shares the mistakes of other social media. With it going public soon with a $ 4.3 billion SPAC, one can hope that some of that money will go towards figuring out how to save something like real local news, but for now I would argue that it is just transforming “local” into places where issues on a national level can play out in a space that tends to be quite toxic.
By connecting the world, the Internet has turned “anywhere” into “here” and from “somewhere” into “nowhere”.
If “local” dissolves into “Great Big Everywhere” on the Internet, what does that mean for “local journalism”? Reuters research shows “a link between people’s attachment to their local community and the level of local news consumption” that can be mutually reinforcing: “While a well-functioning local news ecology can create community attachment, attachment to the community also generate demand for local news. And where there is no connection to the community from the outset, local and regional media will certainly have an increasingly difficult time. “
No community bond, no community – and no journalism. Then is it strange to think that when these weeklies go down, the idea of their cities will sink a little further under the waves?
On Friday I’ll be talking about Big Tech’s solution to the local problem; it includes wearing cool glasses and perpetual meetings in infinite offices.