quote of the week: the decline of local journalism

From a midwestern newspaper journalist's anonymous email to Andrew Sullivan:

When you see the metrics every day, and it’s clear that quick-hit crime stories or freak-show stories generate as many clicks as an investigative piece that took weeks to report, what rationale can there possibly be for doing the investigative work, the longer-form stories that actually help explain the workings of a community to the people who live there?

If you care about the quality of journalism, consider a policy of refusing to click on crime and freak-show news, no matter how much the headline arouses your curiosity.  One advantage of online journalism is that when I refuse to click on those stories, that disinterest is recorded.   Obviously I'm in the minority, but the conscious behavior of consumers is the only thing that moves corporations.  

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales recently said that one of his biggest problems as mayor is the lack of credible local journalism, which has made it impossible to have a public conversation about issues that matter to the city and region.   Would the great achievements of consensus in the past have been possible without our newspaper of record, the Oregonian, as a universally recognized forum for discsussing the issues of the day? 

It's not just that the Oregonian has ceased to publish on paper, it's also that its website looks trashy and conveys the company's low self-esteem.  Big O, before your name is utterly forgotten, wake up and realize that your marketing advisors are killing you.  Fire whoever suggested that your website be called "Oregon Live" instead of "The Oregonian," and that it should look like the website of a cheap fly-by-night aggregator instead of like that of a newspaper.  The credibility that comes from a long and respected history is the only thing legacy newspapers have as a competitive advantage, and the Oregonian is throwing that away.  

When you really start thinking about this, it's hard to face how scary it could be.  Sure, there are other ways of getting news, usually news pre-digested for those who share your political views.   But there's no other way for the whole city to have a conversation.  How can we do planning without that?

10 Responses to quote of the week: the decline of local journalism

  1. Morgan Wick January 9, 2014 at 10:39 am #

    Maybe the city doesn’t want to have a conversation because that requires too much thinking?

  2. Scoots January 9, 2014 at 11:05 am #

    I was unaware of The Oregonian’s struggles. I’ve always looked to it as an example of a good newspaper and website. Here in KC our local paper The Star is a shell of its former self and continues (despite numerous redesigns) to have an abominable website utterly lacking in quality design.

  3. Eli January 9, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    I would argue that we never had such a conversation; we had a tiny number of elites holding a conversation amongst themselves and pretending that it represents a more inclusive conversation. What we’ve lost is the illusion that a handful of media outlets represent a conversation among people who have nothing to do with those outlets, and that the spectrum of views present in those outlets is reflective of the views of the people for whom these outlets purport (on no authority but their own) to speak. And we’ve lost the ability for a tiny number of individuals to decide for everyone else what the “conversation” is going to be. Good riddance.

  4. Michael Andersen January 9, 2014 at 11:37 am #

    The Oregonian has been a strong regional paper for a long time and in my opinion continues to be, at least relative to its peers, all of which are in similar financial straits. (Factual note: they’re still publishing on paper seven days a week; home delivery is now four days a week.)
    Unfortunately for all of us, the universal decline of regional dailies illustrates that this isn’t due to anything under the newspaper’s control. The market for general-interest local news content, funded by volume-based advertising, is rapidly shrinking. This is because information used to be scarce, and now (due to lower distribution costs) it’s plentiful. It’s not something under the Oregonian’s control to correct, any more than it is in any other regional news outlet’s control.
    I’m not saying that carefully researched, usually-reliable, more or less evenhanded information curated with a sense of the public interest is plentiful. It isn’t. But the advertising market that supported this work no longer functions, because readership for this sort of content is down dramatically over the long run. Readership is down because, in economic terms, the opportunity cost of consuming newspaper-style content has risen. For each individual, there’s always something more relevant to be reading than an 800-word news story for the general audience. (This blog, for example.)
    A nicely designed website will not change this. Reporting stories of lasting public impact will not change this. Clever headlines or brightly written features about fascinating people will not change this. A series of hugely successful and popular investigative reports would not change this.
    For better or worse, the only solution for local civic information is to work within these new economic constraints. We have to create systems, businesses and practices that use the existing network of niche media finance the creation and dissemination of information that advances a just, prosperous, happy world.
    Conscious consumerism and enlightened professionalism, though important, will not solve this problem. Only business-model experimentation will.

  5. Dave January 10, 2014 at 4:51 pm #

    I share Jarrett’s concern. But I suspect that Eli is correct – we never had a conversation involving most of the public. And Michael Anderson is certainly correct that we must work within the new economic reality of lower information distributions costs. It would be nice to have some statistics about who really was involved before and whether they somehow changed and became less interested. I suspect they may have, myself included, who now use online media almost exclusively and have too little community involvement. But I am more concerned that the problem may be a general dumbing down of society and intellect even among otherwise literate and educated people. It’s not cool to be smart or intellectual. Is that different than the past? How do we change society (back) to value education and real communication again? Democracy is apparently alive and well… and taking this country someplace I’m not sure I want to go.

  6. Built January 11, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

    It’s worth noting that the Oregonian is part of a larger company with many papers in other cities. They use a common publishing platform, akin to a industrial strength WordPress, for continuity. That impacts a lot of things, including the unfortunate look and feel of their website. Here’s what I’m talking about: http://i.imgur.com/lVi9A5R.png None of this explains the “OregonLive” name though. 🙂

  7. Nathanael January 20, 2014 at 10:39 am #

    We’ll be fine once everyone gets their news from partisan sources. It’ll be a vast improvement.
    London has lived with partisan press for*ever*, and it works *just fine*. Much better than the US “William Randolph Hearst” model of false objectivity.
    Partisan websites *engage* with their opponents and monitor them constantly — there’s a conversation, believe it or not. Fake-objective websites and newspapers *ignore* their opponents, which is much more deadly for a “conversation”.

  8. Nathanael January 20, 2014 at 10:40 am #

    FWIW, we have two separate free weeklies in my town which provide pretty decent news coverage. And they are both somewhat opinionated. Which is fine.

  9. Alyourpalster January 20, 2014 at 5:23 pm #

    “”Portland Mayor Charlie Hales recently said that one of his biggest problems as mayor is the lack of credible local journalism”””
    ~~~>Government officials are not in any position to criticize any press or reporter/blogger. They obviously only want coverage that is glowing for themselves.
    “”It’s not just that the Oregonian has ceased to publish on paper, it’s also that its website looks trashy and conveys the company’s low self-esteem.”””
    ~~~>LOL!! Boy is that FUNNY! Talk about a subjective point of view this takes the cake.

  10. JJJJ January 30, 2014 at 8:10 pm #

    We need an independent, tax funded newspaper system to do the very important investigative work. Ala BBC.