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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Steven Waldman was senior advisor to the Chairman of the FCC and principal author of its report on the changing media landscape. He was chair of the Council on Foundations Working Group on Nonprofit Media and is a consultant to the Pew Research Center. Before that, he was the founder of Beliefnet.com and a national correspondent for Newsweek.