For all this, many newspapers are still profitable, not counting some of their owners’ overhanging debt, which may be resolved through ongoing bankruptcy reorganizations and ownership changes. And many newspapers are extensively restructuring themselves to integrate their print and digital operations, creating truly multimedia news organizations in ways that should produce both more cost savings—and more engaging journalism.
A growing number of newspapers also are supplementing their reduced resources for news reporting by collaborating with other newspapers, new kinds of news organizations, and their own readers. In the most extensive collaboration, Ohio’s eight largest newspapers—The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, The Akron Beacon Journal, The (Canton) Repository, The Columbus Dispatch, The (Cincinnati) Enquirer, the Dayton Daily News, The (Toledo Blade), and The (Youngstown) Vindicator—have formed the Ohio News Organization. They share state, business, sports, arts, and entertainment news reporting, various kinds of features, editorials, photographs, and graphics. The newspapers work independently and competitively on enterprise and investigative reporting, to which their editors say they can each now devote more of their smaller number of reporters.
The Star-Ledger in Newark has created a separate community news service that hired three-dozen younger, lower-paid journalists to report from surrounding New Jersey towns. The Seattle Times has agreed to share news Web site links and some reporting with what editor David Boardman calls Seattle’s “most respected neighborhood blogs,” to which residents contribute news to be edited by professional journalists.
Local news coverage remains underfunded, understaffed, and a low priority at most public radio and television stations, whose leaders have been unable to make—or uninterested in making—the case for investment in local news to donors and Congress.
As newspapers sharply reduce their staffs and news reporting to cut costs and survive, they also reduce their value to their readers and communities. At the same time, they are disgorging thousands of trained journalists who are now available to start and staff new kinds of local news organizations, primarily online. This sets the stage for a future for local news reporting in which the remaining economically viable newspapers—with much smaller staffs, revenues, and profits—will try to do many things at once: publish in print and digitally, seek new ways to attract audience and advertisers, invent new products and revenue streams, and find partners to help them produce high quality news at lower cost. They will do all of this in competition—and in collaboration—with the new, primarily online, news organizations that are able to thrive.
Why can’t television and radio make up for the loss of reporting by newspapers?
Some local television stations sometimes produce exemplary local and regional reporting, as demonstrated by the winners of the 2009 DuPont Award. A two-year investigation by WTVT, a Fox affiliate in Tampa, of criminal justice in nearby Hardee County led to the release of a truck driver wrongfully imprisoned for vehicular manslaughter. WFAA in Dallas, an ABC affiliate that has won more than a dozen national awards, received a special citation for three notable investigative reports in a single year.
Still, even in their best years, most commercial television stations had far fewer news reporters than local newspapers, and a 1999 study of fifty-nine local news stations in nineteen cities found that 90 percent of all their stories reported on accidents, crimes, and scheduled or staged events. In recent years, with their ratings and ad revenues in rapid decline and their once extravagant profit margins imperiled, many local television stations have made further cuts in already small news staffs. The number of television stations producing local news of their own is steadily shrinking. Some stations, such as KDNL, the ABC affiliate in St. Louis, and WYOU, serving Scranton and Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania, have dropped local news altogether. At 205 stations around the country, newscasts are now produced by other stations in the same cities.
In the past, the Federal Communications Commission required station owners to show they were serving the public interest before their broadcasting licenses could be renewed. But the FCC no longer effectively enforces the public-service requirement. Some cable television systems offer all-news local channels produced by the cable company itself or by broadcast station owners. The cable news channels, which recycle a relatively few news programs throughout the day, are usually lower cost, smaller-audience versions of host or collaborating broadcast stations.