Don Rogers: Oh, if the paper should fall
July 26, 2018
Out in the news deserts, there are consequences.
People know less about the neighbors, what's going on, where their money's spent, why community matters.
Local business struggles more, government costs rise, connection to place frays.
Facebook, Nextdoor and the like do not fill the gap, not really, even aiming high to bring us all together.
“Our results indicate that online sources do not provide a sufficient substitute for the monitoring mechanism provided by local newspapers.”
— study by Notre Dame and University of Illinois at Chicago professors
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Turns out, there is indeed a difference between news source and electrified grapevine. And a balance to be struck, lest gossip and this insatiable temptation to troll overwhelm all the good in amping up our social networks.
The empirical quest for truth we know as local journalism, however flawed, at least has a prayer of keeping things honest against onslaughts of rumor and speculation expressed as if fact, never mind the intentional BS.
At least this is a conclusion of a recent study: "Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance." In it, a trio of Notre Dame and University of Illinois at Chicago professors finds evidence that the loss of a paper in a community leads to higher taxation, higher government spending and higher costs associated with municipal bonds.
This report also cites similar studies showing less effective schools, more corruption, lower voter turnout and citizen engagement, and less attention to constituents after the local newspaper disappears.
Not local news media generally. The local paper specifically.
You'd expect someone like me to shill for the paper over TV, radio, magazines, online-only news sites. Actually, though, I don't think I'd dare be so presumptuous.
But this report goes right there and declares that internet news does not pick up the slack left behind when a local paper goes under.
Or in the words of the study's authors: "Our results indicate that online sources do not provide a sufficient substitute for the monitoring mechanism provided by local newspapers." An irony is I can embed the full 46-page report with this column online or suggest you search, um, on the internet by the title.
Yes, this is only one study, and of course it's self-serving of me to bring it up. Still, what is it about the newspaper, exactly?
How would this play out in western Nevada County with YubaNet and our rich trove of blogs? With KVMR and KNCO still staffed by humans who do news?
The Sierra Sun is hardly the only local news source in Truckee and the north side of Lake Tahoe — with Moonshine Ink, community TV, KTKE, and Tahoe Weekly to an extent.
Another curious thing is the newspapers also are the dominant online news sources in their communities, along with the print versions still reaching the largest single body of readers, at least here.
Still, it's clear enough that the newspaper industry's hole is being dug and shovelfuls are echoing off wood with news of each round of layoffs — Tronc this week — and cutbacks in print frequency, along with the bankruptcies and closures. America has nearly 700 fewer newspapers today than in 2004. Even the more-insulated community papers prone to whistling past the graveyard in the trade publications have largely silenced their bravado.
The transformation is on. But it's not for lack of readers. Between online and print audiences, we have more than ever. No, the core problem for the papers lies in the business itself. The print business does not translate well to online, at least not well enough to support the historic newsroom.
Google and Facebook benefit from not having to carry the cost of journalists. Neat. Ticks on the dog so long as the dog lives. Maybe Amazon provides a clue for how this may go later.
The report devotes space to Craigslist, an early stressor. Most papers adjusted pretty well to the bite out of their classified advertising. But Craigslist was only an early wave in the digital tsunami, part of a familiar tide going back to the beginning of the Industrial Age. Progress, I mean to say.
I'm not dreamy about papers as papers, or even as online extensions of papers. Maybe we'll figure it out, maybe we won't, though we don't lack for passion or grit.
Demand, even craving, for news remains. This tells me that if all the papers go, if the rest of the news media we know today falls, too, something eventually will follow. Something that keeps the neighbors well informed, local government on its toes, communities connected.
Those deserts aren't really deserts, after all, but vacuums.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com or 530-477-4299.