Thursday, January 01, 2009
OK, I have a personal stake here, because the newspaper I work for may fold in a few weeks. But this may be the year that a number of medium-size and larger cities lose their dailies, at least in the form of a paper-and-ink product delivered to the customers' front door.
Name your reason for the demise of the daily -- Craigslist surely accelerated a trend that was well under way -- but there are plenty of reasons to be scared scatless when general-interest newspapers disappear.
This op-ed from The Wall Street Journal sums up a lot about the challenges "citizen journalists" trying to cover local events will face, at least initially. Over at The Corner, Mark Krikorian has echoed these thoughts.
There may be people who are passionate enough about local affairs (and who have lots of time on their hands) and are perfectly willing and capable of attending public hearings and reporting what happens.
But before bloggers or other online-only media can replace newspapers, they'll have to build reputations that inspire respect and even fear from public officials and corporate titans. Like it or not, there are advantages to working for organizations that can buy ink by the barrel. Amateurs won't have the same access to officials that professional journalists (even free-lancers working for established media organizations) do. An institution with the capacity of reaching several hundred thousand people a day in a concentrated market keep people in the public sphere minding their p's and q's. At least they'll return a reporter's phone call if they don't want to see their name on the front page in an unfavorable light when it's justified.
But bloggers may never have that influence. What mayor or council member or agency employee in his right mind would respond to a call or a question or an e-mail from an amateur? And what outlet would a whistleblower trust to break a story of corruption or malfeasance or other official misdeeds?
I'll concede that a local blogger who has built up credibility through his own efforts -- via celebrity or reputation or personal wealth -- may be able to create an institution that replaces the journalistic functions of the current daily newspaper. And perhaps that outlet can build a professional operation, even if it has a staff of one.
But any such outfits need financial support to be anything other than hobbies for part-timers with narrow interests. And as of now, I've not heard of a business model that makes an online news organization sustainable at the local level, even in a city the size of Denver.
I honestly hope that such business models are forthcoming. Heck, I'd be eager to participate in a startup like that. Because I know that a vacuum in news coverage will be toxic to the health of our political system.