Newspapers Should Focus on Local News — But Not Forget Bigger Picture

    by Mark Glaser
    March 17, 2008

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    Recently, there was a healthy discussion on Poynter’s Online-News email list on the topic of the importance of local news. So I decided to put the question to MediaShift readers as well: Should traditional media outlets start focusing more on local news and leave the national and international stories to other outlets? How far should they go?

    Before I get into your excellent answers to this question, I first want to quote Rob “Roblimo” Miller from the Online-News list. Miller is editor in chief of Linux.com, and says that he doesn’t need focus groups to know what his readers want; he goes to conferences and is in touch with readers all the time, living in their community. Even though he’s talking about the open source software community, it offers a nice parallel for how a local news reporter might mingle in his/her community as well.

    “[Geographical communities are] an underserved online niche, because they have been dominated by ‘us to you,’ top-down newspapers and TV/cable news operations,” MIller said. “But it can and should be one of the most valuable niches of all. The local mall should be supporting local news/info sites like mad, because it draws its business from the area around it, not from all over the world.”


    Many MediaShift commenters pointed out the importance of local news, whether it’s in small town newspapers or in local business journals. “Focusing on local news is the only way for smaller papers to compete and differentiate themselves from the larger papers like the NY Times,” wrote Binh Ngo, who writes the End of Boredom blog.

    The blogger known as Simple Country Physicist builds on that theme with his experience in North Alabama:

    Increasingly the only uniqueness and relevancy that traditional media can offer is the local stuff. This is more obvious perhaps in the Heartland than in Metropolois. In a town of 6,000, I observe a thriving — relatively — local published twice-weekly, but flagging subscriptions to the dailies from the cities to north and south for whom the small towns are largely nonexistent. Increasingly the big dailies have little to offer [that’s] not more easily available on the web.

    One anonymous commenter noted how the timeliness of the Internet makes daily newspapers in print look a day late on their stories:


    What news organizations need to do is realize that they have to be more immediate and local. It is not enough to post stories a day later. Coverage has to be as immediate as possible and then remain available. A city council meeting can be streamed live and the journalist can help to highlight the key portions. There are no more broadcast journalists and print journalists, there are only digital journalists who know their area of expertise and their community.

    The key combination here is timely and local. When local news outlets stray too much from that mantra, they get lost.

    Age and Digital Divide

    But in the push for local, are some media outlets going too far in figuring that people can get their national and international news elsewhere? On the Online-News list, University of North Carolina journalism professor Phil Meyer noted that editors tend to go overboard on local news over national news:

    There is a pretty good history of survey research suggesting that editors tend to overestimate the importance of local news. They like it because its coverage is under their control. But when survey respondents tell them they want a good national and international report, editors tend not to believe them. I have done a couple of studies — going back to 1980 (which was a different universe) — comparing street sales to page-one content. National and international stories were better for street sales. My theory: Editors liked local so much that they would bump a good national story off page one to make room for an inferior local piece.

    Local is cheap to produce if you limit yourself to stenographic coverage of public meetings. But to really cover local news, you need talented, specialized reporters who are free to dig for weeks on a single topic.

    Some MediaShift readers said they still wanted to see national and international items, even if they don’t have as much depth. “In our Daily Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, SD, I would love to see more shorter national and international news stories and less of the lengthy local stories, re: the USA Today format,” wrote Doug Johnson.

    Charles Roberts says this isn’t a problem of local vs. national vs. international, but a problem of less news of every variety in traditional media outlets.

    “There is increasingly less local news and less international news in newspapers,” Roberts wrote. “Both newspapers and television networks employ fewer and fewer persons to report on the news, and, except for garbage about celebrities, the nation has become less and less informed about everything…When was that last time that you heard or read anything about, for example, the dispute between Russia and The Ukraine? Our nation is not well-served by any of the typical ‘news’ sources. Certainly local news is important, national news is important, and international news is important. Why should one have to choose?”

    Indeed. Karen Howell also wasn’t ready to lose national news in print. “I would love to see more local news but I’m old enough that I don’t want to go dig the national and international stuff off the web,” she wrote. “So give me local news and put the wider coverage in there too — or tell me the link where I can get it.” Perhaps there’s still a place for journalists in filtering all the national and international news for their local audience?

    Of course, there’s also the issue of the digital divide. If we put just the local news in print and then expect the populace to find national and international news online, what about people who can’t afford to go online at all hours?

    “The grand assumption behind this is that everyone’s reading their news on the Internet,” wrote Mike Ho. “Certainly MediaShift readers are. But not everyone is, and here’s where it gets hairy. The Internet-connected community, while getting larger, still excludes large swaths of the population based both on age and socio-economic status. If local papers skimp on national news because ‘everyone’s getting it online,’ they’re forgetting that not everyone is online, not even in the net-savvy San Francisco Bay Area, the readership for the example you cite.”

    Of course, they can still get national and international news on TV, though they would need a cable subscription to see the 24-hour news channels. But Ho’s point is relevant here, and needs to be considered as local news outlets weigh how their mix might change of local and non-local news.

    Roy Clark is the Poynter Institute’s vice president and senior scholar, and pens the Writing Tools blog. Clark noted that each new technology, from the telegraph to the Internet, has taken us out of our physical communities as we get more news from abroad. Here’s part of what he wrote on the Online-News list:

    Each [new technology], I might argue, has, in some form, weakened the bonds between citizens and the places where they sleep.

    This was brought home to me last week when an electrical short threatened a house down the block late one night, bringing six fire trucks to the rescue. Folks who rarely gather or know each others’ names were out in the street in our jimmies chatting and making sure everyone was safe. When there was a murder around the corner, never solved, neighbors got together to talk about the value of security systems. We are diurnal creatures. We have to sleep somewhere.

    What do you think? Should traditional news outlets focus more on local news, and how should they balance the need for their communities to learn more about local happenings vs. national and international news? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Photo of newspaper by Lance Nishihira via Flickr.

    Tagged: comments newspapers
    • All of the stats show that newpaper circulation is dropping and dropping fast. It’s not that everyone is flocking to the Internet to get news. It’s that news changes fast and with life getting faster and faster the very restrictions of a printed media can’t keep up with the pace. Once press time rolla around and the document is printed it’s done, no changes, no additions, even while the news is continuously changing. Even if we take out the internet as a factor, CNN, FOX, TV in general, can get national stories and international stories to the people faster and more frequently than newspapers. Reuters and AP were fine for print news sourcing when there was no real competition. CNN changed everything and the increase in cable channels and in household cable connections were the killers for newspapers not just the Internet. If the Internet were not a factor it would still be just a matter of time before cable TV news destroyed nwespapers. And, with all of the choices of politically slanted news from all perspectives available on cable TV even the network news is getting killed. In response the local newspapers will have no choice but to find a niche to cater to. They either do that or they continue to loose readers and the advertising dollars that come with it. Will the niche be focused local news, will be it some other news subset like business, or fashion, or family issues, etc. I’m not sure. I can only be certain that if they don’t specialize and create a niche and do it well they will perish.

    • My approach to news is targeted multi-media. I get my international and national news from NPR, and would probably listen to NPR more than music if I could afford the HD radio. However, my local news I get from my college newspaper (a little) but mostly small, highly-localized publications that deal extensively with very immediate geographically-relevant issues (proposed school zoning changes, high school athletics, new business)where my city paper doesn’t treat that stuff as front page news. It shouldn’t, and I find the neighborhood publication ultimately more valuable because of the direct impact information has on my life. I also find the neighborhood publication to be the least slanted and most information-filled; it is “news.”

      I use the net for information-at-large, ideas, thinking-stuff and rarely for news events. I rarely watch cable or network news — I find their emphasis on violence, negative stories, journalistic hype offensive. Just yesterday, a local Fox affiliate had an anchor who tried to get an on-location reporter to speculate on the cause of a death when no evidence was available –it was ghoulish.

    • i agree w the comment from hal from above.

      in addition, i really think the newspaper has to balance what the readers are interested in, what they can cover and what sells newspapers. depending on what the papers needs are i.e. money, exposure, readership, the choices for what they focus on will be different.

      personally i like news stories and pictures of events happening around me but there is a line bw what is newsworthy and what is not. that is the tough distinction and one a good editor should know.

    • I do believe the the strength for newspapers is in good local reporting, including, as stated above, the in-depth stuff, to which I’d add the investigative stories. In theory, a good story is a good story and the size of the stage shouldn’t matter much. Beyond that, some papers could get even more local and be a more meaningful information resource for the things discussed in online neighborhood groups, covering local sports better (that’s a fevered audience,) even something that sounds as boring as zoning can turn into a pretty interesting story when you follow the money. A personality columnist can still attract and keep readers, plus local business reviews and profiles. As for national and international, a wire story is a wire story so that leaves commentary and local impact or involvement in a story. There are papers doing, or at least trying to do all these things, but still suffering. So I wonder if it has less to do with newspapers themselves than with the fading of local character and shortening attention spans.

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