Klinenberg cultivates the localism theme in successive chapters, with equal fervor but less punch. His chapter on alt-weeklies is a lament about media concentration. He documents how a once lively and competitive marketplace for youth-oriented, irreverent weeklies that publish significant investigative local stories was slowly tamed by two alt-weekly chains—Village Voice Media and New Times, which merged in 2006. He tells this tale without encouraging the reader to observe that alternative weeklies, regardless of their ownership, occupy a market niche that, New York City aside, did not emerge until the 1960s. Even as alt-weekly consolidation grows, it grows within a sector that simply did not exist forty-five years ago. Is this an example of frightening concentration or greater diversity? The paradox that must be contemplated is that it is both.
Klinenberg’s writing is strongest in bringing alive the originality, enterprise, stumbles, and successes of various grass-roots endeavors. Consider his account of Ginny Welsch, the “veteran radio personality” in Nashville who sought a low-power radio license because “ Nashville radio is terrible for local bands, terrible.” And there’s April Glaser, the “pink-haired teenager with a passion for obscure music” who, at seventeen, became a member of Welsch’s executive board; and April’s father, who was so moved by her dedication that he purchased land and built a radio tower for the station. The day that “Radio Free Nashville” began broadcasting, Klinenberg was there as a witness, and he movingly describes the opening cry of “Low Power to the People!”
This radio barn-raising exemplifies the great American impulse to speak out and speak up. What’s not to admire? It’s the energy of democratic renewal that Tocqueville tipped his hat to in the 1830s. Europeans couldn’t match it then, nor can they now. We can be glad there is a Radio Free Nashville, and that local musicians get some air time on it, but its birth is a modest triumph, not, as Klinenberg hints, a world historical moment.
Is it a shame that two-, three-, and five-newspaper towns are now one-newspaper towns? Or that so many of the remaining media companies are publicly traded and not privately held? Yes, but the consequences for news content are not obvious. In his chapter on newspapers, Klinenberg takes a seemingly sensible but unpromising tack: he points to important stories the contemporary press has missed, the implication being that cities and states were better served by the media in 1960 or 1980 than they are today. But yesterday’s more diverse and more locally owned press missed vital stories, too. Localities were not better served by the grand old press of family capitalism in which four out of five publishers preached in 1936 on behalf of Alf Landon and against FDR, that marvelous old press that had more than four hundred correspondents covering Washington, D.C., in 1972 but assigned at most fifteen of them to work full-time on a story called “Watergate” in the months before the 1972 election, that old noble press that repressed unfavorable local news and omitted practically all news about minorities in their communities. The news media, past and present, miss stories, and the explanation doesn’t always involve questions of ownership and concentration. Even the BBC, for instance, mostly missed the Holocaust. A media critic must ask what else, besides ownership patterns, matters.
Klinenberg deserves praise for his broad survey of the media—from newspapers and commercial radio to low-power radio, alt-weeklies, and the Internet. Even so, he omits two vital media domains—magazines and books. Both are more diverse, not less, than they were forty or fifty years ago. The original muckrakers of the early 1900s were writers for national, middle-class magazines, liberated by those publications’ national advertising and audience base to muckrake city governments more fiercely than the compromised local newspapers generally dared.
While all media matter, some matter more than others, and for the sake of democracy, print still counts most, especially print that devotes resources to gathering news. Network TV matters, cable TV matters, but when it comes to original investigation and reporting, newspapers are overwhelmingly the most important media. Wall Street, whose collective devotion to an informed citizenry is nil, seems determined to eviscerate newspapers. If we knew how to protect daily newspapers, I doubt there would be many worries about alt-weeklies or low-power radio.