What About Local News?

Newstand in Athens, Greece


What a lot of people see as the weak point in my argument that the glory days of American journalism are happening right now is in the field of state and local news. And on its face, this really is a weak point. After all one key driver of increased news productivity is that the Internet lets a reader escape the bounds of space and time. That’s extremely useful if you’re sitting in Indianapolis and trying to learn something about India. It’s not that useful if you’re sitting in Indianapolis and trying to learn something about Indianapolis.

At the same time, it’s hard to generalize about local news since it varies from place to place. So I’m interested in hearing from people about their local experiences. But what I want to hear is stories from a reader’s viewpoint. The focus should be on journalistic outputs (is more information available to you or less) rather than inputs (are more journalists employed or fewer). My view from Washington D.C. is that things are pretty good. Compared to when I first got here in 2003 we still have the Washington Post as the pillar of local journalism. It’s scaled back in some ways, but scaled back in others—launching great features like the D.C. Sports Bog and the District of DeBonis. The alt-weekly City Paper is still around, still great, and thanks to the Web published much more than once a week! Housing Complex is my favorite, but Young & Hungry and Loose Lips are also very useful. Then local TV stations have also built out websites that feature news and reporting. The local NBC affiliate seems to have done this best. And we have DCist and Prince of Petworth and sundry neighborhood blogs. The Washington Business Journal carries some good stuff I’m interested in, and we have specialty sites like Greater Greater Washington and Unsuck D.C. Metro and probably other ones that cover other stuff that other people are interested in.

We’ve also had some failures. TBD launched and then was strangled before it really had a chance. The D.C. Examiner did some good local journalism, but apparently that wasn’t paying off financially. But all things considered I’d say I’m basically in the content cornucopia scenario. There’s more good locally focused writing that I can read for free in any given day than I have time to.

That said, I suspect my case may not be typical. The D.C. metro area is one of the biggest, most prosperous, and most highly educated in America. D.C. has a thriving media industry cluster focused on national news that creates some positive spillovers for locally focused journalism. And I live in the center city, not a peripheral area. Even right in this area I’m not sure that there’s nearly as much good coverage of Fairfax County local news or of state politics in Richmond. And of course all state/local coverage features the problem that the web has made it so much easier for readers to pay attention to things that are far away. When you can follow your favorite English Premiere League team with ease, maybe you don’t want to follow the local school board and quality of governance suffers from inattention. I’d love to hear more about how it looks to people in other places.