Measuring the number of reporters can seem like a primitive, industry-centered way of looking at things. After all, not all of those laid off reporters were muckrakers and some were local movie reviewers, not city hall reporters. But given the difficulties of truly measuring “outputs,” the body count of lost reporters turns out to be a decent proxy for assessing the health of local accountability journalism.
There is one less-commented-upon flaw in Yglesias’ reasoning. He says ad rates are low because readers have so many choices. That’s partly right. But, more importantly, ad rates on news sites are low because advertisers have so many choices. As ad dollars have migrated from print or TV to the web, they have not, for the most part, gone to digital news or content sites. A local business can often reach his area customers on Google or Facebook just as well—in effect, better—than if he advertises on a local blog. So even a really good local news operation will struggle to survive if it is dependent on ads.
Some national organizations make it because they can attract sufficiently large audiences to outrun the lousy economics of declining ad rates. But the economics that work for Slate—whose content can attract readers from around the world—do not work for local news. Readers in London may be interested in Yglesias’ take on the Greek crisis, but they are not interested in the garbage pickup crisis in Akron.
Some media organizations are trying to solve this by charging readers, and this could well work out. But keep in mind that the sorts of reporting least likely to withstand a CFO’s cost-benefit analysis, even in a paid-content world, are the ones that are labor intensive and have small potential audience and limited advertiser appeal—e.g. investigative journalism and beat reporting about boring-but-important institutions. By contrast, financial reporting of the sort provided by the outlets that Yglesias mentions—Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal—will probably do fine because people are willing to pay for it.
Yglesias’ optimism is not misplaced in this sense: If we are able to figure out a way of filling the gaps in reporting in certain areas, we really will have the best media system we’ve ever had. The positive attributes of the digital media world that he pointed to are real. Furthermore, good reporting can have a greater impact than ever, because it can be spread and analyzed and enhanced so easily by “the crowd” and people knowledgeable about the topic.
Many people are experimenting with new ways—some commercial, some nonprofit—to solve the crisis in local accountability reporting. But remedies will not be found if the starting point is that these are the “glory days.”
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