Our Continued Wishful Thinking about “Media Localism”

by on July 7, 2008 · 27 comments

There’s an interesting discussion going on over at Editor & Publisher in which E&P columnist Steve Outing and Mark Potts of the now-defunct Backfence.com are debating media localism and recent efforts to give dying newspapers a new lease on life by focusing on the “hyper-local” coverage and community services. Potts obviously didn’t take too kindly to Outling saying of Backfence that: “We know from its experience that relying too heavily on non-paid citizen contributors isn’t a winning strategy.” And that the: “content is often of low quality and boring, and dull just doesn’t fly in the hyper-competitive Web environment. In response, Potts suggests that other factors were responsible for the site’s demise and that hyper-localism and user-generated local content is the future of the industry:

It’s also unfair to suggest that hyperlocal content is “of low quality and boring,” as Steve does in his column. Low quality? To a professional editor, maybe, but the fact is that most participants in user-generated sites can communicate very well. It may not be “journalism,” but it’s still quite readable and interesting. And “boring” is in the eye of the beholder. To an outsider, any hyperlocal information is probably boring. It may be to a transient resident, too. But to someone with a stake in the community, kids in the schools, paying taxes, dealing with community services, patronizing local merchants, etc., those arcane town council meetings, zoning disputes, tips on finding good pizza and kids’ sports scores are incredibly important — more so than just about anything a lot of us think of as journalism.

I think they both make some interesting points, [and there is a running exchange going here] but I want to add a few other frequently overlooked points about the whole “media localism” debate, which continues to stir up so much controversy within the industry and especially here in Washington policy circles. There are two fundamental realities about “localism” that few industry analysts or media critics bother discussing that I want to focus on:

(1) Measurement / Definitional Difficulties
First, it is impossible to scientifically measure exactly how much “local” fare citizens demand—and even defining the term presents another significant challenge. Many analysts and critics run around saying that citizens demand this or that when it comes to local information or media content. Really? Do you have some sort of magic media localism measuring cup that tells us the proper mix of local vs. national inputs? Then show me the data!

Nobody has anything approaching solid empirical evidence on this front. It’s almost all conjecture.

(2) Increased Competition and Choice are the Real Localism Killers!
Second, and far more importantly, even if one admits that many citizens do continue to demand a fair amount of local information and media content, the reality is that left to their own devices, many citizens have also voluntarily flocked to national (and even international) sources of news and entertainment. So, the really interesting question in the “media localism” debate is this: what are we going to do to save local media (or local media outlets) if citizens are voluntarily migrating their ears and ears away from local fare simply because so many other out-of-market informational / entertainment options are now at their disposal?

Consider a few cases studies about our evolving “local-vs.-national” media desires:

* The nationally-focused USA Today didn’t exist 30 years ago, but it is now America’s most popular newspaper. Likewise, daily editions of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times—papers of national, even global scope—are delivered to homes and offices across the country each day. Indeed, as of 2006, 56% of the daily circulation of the New York Times was outside of the New York area. So, in an attempt to preserve local voices, should the New York Times be prevented from delivering papers to homes outside the New York metro area? Should distribution of USA Today be somehow restricted so that citizens would have access to only local papers?

* Similarly, with the rise of cable television and cable “superstations” (nationwide networks) throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Americans have increasingly turned to national news and entertainment options in the video marketplace. CNN, Fox News, ESPN, HBO, and Showtime, and TNT are just a few examples of popular national networks that have captured the public’s attention and viewing allegiance. Although the idea of 24-hour national news, sports, and weather channels was once mocked, it is now clear that the public demands such options. Further, nationwide direct broadcast satellite (DBS) services spread quickly across the nation and have been particularly popular in rural communities, as have satellite radio services (XM and Sirius). Consequently, in an attempt to preserve local media, should national or international cable & satellite programming options somehow be limited?

* Finally, the rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web has also driven many citizens to shift their attention to national and international sources of news and entertainment. For example, few Americans had access to BBC News or the Financial Times 20 years ago. Yet those respected British news sources can be accessed by almost anyone in the United States today, and they are growing increasingly popular. Should we, therefore, place some sort of limitations of the reach of the Net to discourage consumption of the endless variety of global fare now available to all citizens?

You get the point: Something’s gotta give. Our collective attention spans have become severely strained from the cornucopia of choices now at our disposal. Information overload has led to audience fragmentation in the extreme. There are only so many hours in the day, yet there are countless more media choices at our disposal today than in the past, when local choices we typically the first or only choices. Today, local choices are just a few more choices along the seemingly endless continuum of media choices.

In closing, here’s the more interesting question: If the current movement toward national and international platforms for news and entertainment is a natural cultural and technological development, as it appears to be, should government have any role in curbing the resulting mix of national versus local media outputs? Indeed, even if the viewing and listening choices made by citizens result in a decline in local media relative to national programming, would critics want the government to limit consumer choices to stop this natural progression?

Such a proposal would be elitist, anti-consumer, and probably completely unworkable. And yet, as Cord Blomquist has noted, there are a lot of people are running around Washington today insisting that government must intervene in the marketplace to “save media localism.” But how, exactly, is government suppose to do that when citizens have quite clearly opted for a different mix of information / entertainment inputs?

Nobody ever talks about these pesky facts in the ongoing debates about the future of “media localism.” Instead, the just continue their wishful thinking about the way they think they world could or should work. Well, guess what: the citizens voted with their feet—or, rather, their eyes and ears—long ago. As they old saying goes: We have met the enemy, and they are us.

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