Local Papers and Local Politics

I could easily have picked from dozens of other stories that illustrate the point I’m about to make, but why not start close to home?

The Worcester Telegram and Gazette, the long-suffering local newspaper, recently announced a new round of layoffs. The paper has had four owners in the last year (including John Henry, owner of Liverpool FC and some local baseball team) who promised not to – and then proceeded to – sell the paper to a non-local owner. Along with the layoffs, the T and G announced a new web layout that looks exactly like the layout used in other Gatehouse Media papers. Gatehouse owns, according to its website, 216 other Massachusetts news sources.

The details are particular but you could fill in the blanks with hundreds of other regional and small city papers. Ownership by giant conglomerates like Gannett and evaporating news rooms are the story of the day. The critical coverage of local issues these papers provide is drying up as a result. The only internet ink that can be spared for towns outside of major metro areas seems to be high school sports coverage.

Unfortunately, the coverage of state and local politics is disintegrating just as we need it most. The federal government is synonymous with gridlock and partisanship. State and local governments are recognizing that they have both the challenge and the opportunity to govern in the vacuum. But as they begin to blaze new trails, media focus and talent doesn’t seem to be following the same path.

National media sources seem all too happy to report on the same non-issues at the national level ad infinitum. Is it my imagination, or when there is less news to report, does coverage get more intense? The 2012 election began in 2009 and proceeded at a snail’s pace, but that didn’t stop the media from speculating at every possible instant who was up and who was down. The perpetual campaign mindset has infected all the national coverage. We’ve had round the clock 2016 presidential race coverage since at least mid-2013. Does this primary win spell the rise or fall of the Tea Party? What color is Hillary wearing on her book tour, and what does it say about her appeal to New Hampshire independents?

Another worrying trend in local media is the rise of the “independent” local news sustained by an organization with a political bent. There are several nationwide affiliations of libertarian tilted news sites, as well as other partisan bents. I’m generally of the opinion that more free speech is good, even if these organizations have certain political perspectives. It’s when they’re the only voice in the room covering the state house, as some of them may soon be, that they become a bit frightening.

There are still a few bright spots of quality in local coverage, despite the reduction in quantity. For some reason, where local coverage exists, it seems more innovative. Maybe it’s because personalities matter more at the local level. Maybe it’s because when you’re one of three correspondents, it’s hard to rely on the “conventional wisdom”. Free market believers might say that in a period of intense competition, it’s had to be of higher quality in order to survive. Or maybe journalism works like democracy is supposed to – the closer to people, the better it understands them.

Whatever the reason, we’re on an exciting frontier of journalistic experimentation. Peruse this Pew Center site to find out where a local nonprofit news source is trying something innovative, and support it if it’s interesting and useful to you.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Public Source: a PA and Pittsburgh focused organizations focusing especially on regional energy coverage. Many of their articles were formatted in a Q&A “Need to know” format or with plenty of graphics and interactive charts.
  • NECIR and other Investigative News Network affiliates: for my money, the best organization focused on smaller, well-investigated stories from the region. Reporting like this is the anti-thinkpiece. If investigative reporting gets swallowed up by the press release/listicle circulating bodies that pass for press these days, we will all be in serious trouble.
  • EcoRI: New England coverage of environmental issues, especially in Rhode Island.
  • Wyofile: Innovative local coverage of the least populous state. Just because Wyo has the fewest people doesn’t mean it should be ignored: land use, energy and tribal issues are three examples of topics in which it punches above its weight – topics that affect US citizen who have never set foot in Wyoming
  • The Marshall Project – Focused exclusively on criminal justice issues. Their coverage of Baltimore, sentencing, and prison policies in the US goes deeper than any traditional publication can, and it’s produced some excellent stories.
  • The Texas Tribune – Extensive coverage of one of the US’s longest running dramas: Texas state politics. I also love their TribCast, which covers Texas politics in podcast form. I’m so far from Texas politics that it’s more like a fictional TV show that I follow (did you hear what Lieutenant Governor Patrick did in this week’s episode?) but I think that shows the quality that goes into it. Granted, it’s good material, but state politics shouldn’t be boring and rote.

It’s a new world for journalism, and whether these news organizations can sustain the public’s interest or continue to change along with the media landscape remains to be seen.

Whether you work in the industry or not, this has a big effect on you and your society. What other new journalistic forms have you noticed? Which sources/publications do you find the most compelling?