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The Local Newspaper Dichotomy

August 23, 2016

By Ralph Posner |


Why they’re still important, and struggling


On the heels of witty satire surrounding the political conventions and the opening ceremonies in Rio on his hit show Last Week Tonight (HBO), John Oliver switched gears to focus on the state of newspaper journalism in the U.S. in an artful and poignant 19-minute rant that hit home here at DI.



Summarizing Oliver’s segment, David Boardman, dean of Temple University’s journalism school points out that Oliver made a persuasive case for what many in our industry were already thinking – “that all Americans should be concerned about the fate of newspapers and should do what they can to support their local paper.”


We emphatically agree. Let’s take a step back to look at why.


Newspapers today are still a critical component of local grassroots activism. They are proving to be scrappy and persistent, willing to roll up their sleeves to compete in a digital age where as Oliver so aptly notes, a cat that looks like a raccoon can legitimately compete for attention among harder hitting news stories. We laugh at the waning attention spans and the evolving appetite for packaged news, but it’s true – people are more distracted than ever, and there are many in the journalism industry who struggle daily with the clicks over substantive debate.


Of course we’ve all seen the headlines – once seemingly invincible newspapers like The Oregonian and the Cleveland Plain Dealer have been forced to cut back staff and limit popular beats. But Oliver’s analogy that “media is a food chain that would fall apart without local newspapers” is dead on and a critical observation to everyone who follows any type of news.


No one knows this pecking order better than the local news outlets. Take the Seattle Times’ response to Oliver’s piece, in which they thank those already supporting local journalism. “To everyone else… please support the valuable work we do (for example, these 10 stories gleaned from public records, or these watchdog stories that hold people in power accountable, or our unmatched coverage of the Seahawks).


Even with cutbacks to help papers compete digitally, local newspapers are still packing a punch when it comes to generating original coverage and local influence. According to a recent media influence survey, traditional outlets remain the most trusted news sources. In questioning 200 reporters and editors worldwide, 72 percent agreed that the source still matters and traditional outlets still have the strongest credibility. In addition, nearly 75 percent said they would trust traditional media over paid, direct-to-consumer and social channels.


The take away here is that despite hard times, local newspapers remain a critically important part of our evolving news ecosystem. John Oliver makes the case that many of us in the grassroots industry have known for some time: Original, authentic local newspaper coverage is arguably more important than ever. Even as we embrace the digital age, nothing can replace genuine coverage from the front lines in communities where news actually happens.


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