Sunday, May 18, 2008
"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787
"The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823
I’m a Jeffersonian type of guy. I believe in the need for a free and healthy press to provide people with information and a vehicle for the exchange of opinions as a foundation for a working republic.
But even on a local scale such as the one in Springfield Massachusetts that’s an iffy proposition.
I’ve pretty much given up on national television to actually give us necessary information. The boiled-down to a sound bite story now competes for time with whatever stupid thing some celebrity is doing resulting in a battle of feeble news elements.
My real concern is with local media. It’s in bad shape. Does the local press give people the necessary vehicle they need to be informed citizens?
Let’s take my hometown of Springfield and its media market as an example. It’s a medium-sized market that has seen outlets for local news shrink and disappear. Much of this has had to do with two on-going trends: the displacement of a local advertising base with one dominated by non-advertising chains and the acquisition of media outlets by outside conglomerates.
Lack of advertising killed off the daily newspaper in Holyoke. A group of investors with no vision deep-sixed the area’s first and dominant local talk station WREB. The corporate dominance in local commercial radio by Clear Channel has resulted in many years of what I call “angry white guy radio” with relatively little local content and only one political point of view.
I’ve welcomed the emergence of progressive radio on one station, WHMP, but even that station has only a few hours of local programming and no local call-in shows.
The local PBS station does have local television programming something the commercial stations have abandoned other than the local “newscasts.” The local NPR station does a bare minimum of local news and basically ignores the largest part of its market, the city of Springfield. The Albany, NY, station WAMC has made a commitment to our news that is quite admirable.
It’s interesting to note that talk radio experts I’ve heard speak all say that a good local call-in show will beat a syndicated one. People want local content.
The dominant regional daily paper, The Republican, has gone through a series of lay-off and cutbacks that has affected the scope and depth of its coverage. The spin-off company of theirs that produces their Web site, MassLive, is based on an economic model that requires free content or content paid for by the newspaper. That’s a bad model right there.
The Republican has become a five-minute read most days. Ironically, there are still plenty of good writers there who are capable of very good reporting.
The Republican has through many years of ham-handed political interference and attempts at king making has made itself suspect when it comes to the coverage of local politics.
Its weakness has allowed the growth of local weeklies, such as the ones I edit. We, too, feel the crunch of the changes in the advertising base and as a weekly can only do so many stories as compared to the daily. Yet we frequently beat the daily in covering stories. I keep a file of their swipes from us.
Our advertisers say they get results and our papers are well read according to independent audits, but I would hate to see our area without a daily paper, something that might happen if trends aren't reversed.
I’ve come up with a plan that would strengthen our paper’s position, but my publisher has yet to adopt it.
Local television news also has some reporters capable of good solid reporting, but they are hampered by formats that emphasize incorrect weather forecasts above real news. Seeing attractive young people report about communities they barely know or care about isn’t a good formula for success in my book.
So are Web sites the answer? That is the huge question because if Jefferson were alive today, I’d bet he’ d be a blogger.
The issue with Web sites is developing an economic model that would support local reporting. Right now, most of the blogging done locally is a sideline supported by another career. That hampers the marketing of the blogs, which is crucial for commercial success.
Will people pay for blogs when they have been trained for generations that news is relatively free with the costs of producing content underwritten by advertisers instead of being purchased by consumers?
People want local news, but would they be willing to pay $1 a day or more for a newspaper or a blog subscription to insure the economic viability of that news outlet?
The other element that is restricting the commercial growth of blogs is the technology needed to view them. Newspapers are cheap and completely portable. One day everyone might have a device to be on-line wherever they happen to be, but now is not that time.
In this market what is truly creating a Jeffersonian press are the wide variety of news and opinion blogs we currently have. I’m thankful for that.
© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs