No media ecosystem can be achieved without local journalism
Oct 30, 2012
No local journalism, no media ecosystem: the urgent need for a radical revolution to save local newspapers in the digital age.
In the endless search for a new form of journalism - one that sustains itself beyond the complaints of journalists, unions, and owners of traditional media who suddenly began to worry about the "quality" of journalism, we find a journalistic niche that is even more desperate for salvation - local journalism. As a colleague said, "It's easier for me to know news from New York than what happens on the avenue near my house." This observation is valid for any smaller city - here and abroad. Local newspapers are the first to feel the impact of the digital revolution, because they operate in very lean structures, have few sources of revenue, do not syndicate their own content, and rarely sell ads to regional and national advertisers. Of the 14 American newspapers that have closed since 2007, all were local, and the overwhelming majority of operations that migrated to digital only also (although in the case of local newspapers, simple migration is just a swan song before death). For this type of journalism - fundamental to society - the only way out is a radical revolution in the administrative part and in the production flow itself. Local newsrooms are unfeasible outside of large metropolitan areas.
This article by journalist Robert Niles addresses the subject from a perspective that I have also been advocating for a long time. "Local content production cannot be scaled," says Niles, adding that, despite this, content production tools scale quite easily, as do social media and community topic discussions. Developing the reasoning initiated by Niles, local content production cannot be scaled if the production model is the traditional one. Maintaining a newsroom, however small, has an unsustainable cost for a newspaper in a small city, which ended up creating the "news deserts" that veteran journalist Tom Stites' Banyan Project tries to confront.
Brazil is a more difficult scenario to imagine the paradigm shift because here the press has had an official-governmental bias forever. The alignment of the media with power is almost always the rule, and many deficit local newspapers keep functioning with a subpar product because they are tools of local political bosses. But societies that do not have this characteristic can think of a different model, since death is certain in the current model. Ron Greenslade, from the Guardian, suggests the end of regulation for those who do local journalism in England (which would certainly reduce costs).
But we need to go further. Cuts in corporate costs that large journalism chains have are step zero because they make any project unfeasible (they are the gangrene of the model). Rethinking the way news is collected by sharing costs and revenues with content providers (i.e., freelancers) is a second step, but it's only the beginning. Redesign of the production flow and hierarchy within the newspaper, division of the news according to the editorial offices and delivery formats, creation of support communities, and a continuous digital policy that keeps information arriving in whatever format possible (remember: ten years ago, most people laughed at the idea of reading news on a cell phone because it is "too small").
The point here is that if the print media is doomed (and thank God, even ecologically speaking), the newspapers don't have to be. What is needed is to remake what has been done without remembering what was done before (experience usually blinds us). Hardly a less mature market, where some participants dominate the entire process thanks to political and economic tools (like, er... Brazil) can move to this new panorama. It's a shame because as Isaac Mendez said, "you can't fight with the future":-)