It seems like ambitious new journalism projects are everywhere these days. The announcement that former New York Times editor Bill Keller will lead a nonprofit startup covering the criminal justice system arrived just as Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media launched its first “digital magazine” and as Ezra Klein begins staffing up his “Project X” venture at Vox Media. Meanwhile, powerful incumbents like The Washington Post, The New York Times and ESPN are producing new branded online initiatives that move away from traditional newsgathering and reporting routines. It’s an important moment for rethinking how to organize and fund the production of news.
As we watch these projects unfold, however, it’s worth remembering that the staid local newspaper still offers specific civic benefits that the new models will be hard-pressed to replace, especially at the local and state level.
Despite all the flaws of the traditional newspaper—and there are many—the bundling of hard news and civic information with soft news, sports, comics, and more is amazingly effective at supporting broad-based political and civic engagement. The latest reminder came two weeks ago in the form of a study in the academic journal Political Communication by Portland State’s Lee Shaker. Shaker found that from 2008 to 2009 civic engagement declined more sharply in Denver and Seattle than in other major cities—a result he attributes to the closures of the Rocky Mountain News and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer during that period, which left them as one-newspaper towns. His conclusions are consistent with a 2013 study in the Journal of Media Economics, which similarly found that after The Cincinnati Post closed in late 2007, electoral competition and voter turnout declined in areas of Kentucky where the Post was the leading paper. It’s hard to prove a direct causal connection between the papers’ closings and reduced engagement, but other research has found that residents of areas where the newspaper market doesn’t match up well with congressional district boundaries were less informed about their representatives, which in turn caused legislators to be less responsive to their constituents’ needs.
I’ve experienced the benefits of bundling firsthand since moving to Hanover, NH, where I subscribe to the Valley News, an excellent community-focused newspaper serving the Upper Connecticut River Valley. The value of the newspaper for my family comes from the bundling of the sports section, which my son devours, with events announcements and soft local news that my wife and I find useful for keeping up with the community. In the process of reading those stories, though, I can’t help but come across detailed political coverage that keeps me more informed about local and state politics than I’ve been in my adult life. As a result, I feel vastly more connected to the community and what’s going on in the region and state than I did when I lived in North Carolina and Michigan and subscribed to The New York Times rather than a local paper.
The fact that newspapers still have these civic effects despite the rise of the Internet and cable television is an amazing testament to the power of the bundling process. It’s also a reminder that, if we want to preserve these benefits, we need to develop not just new business models, but new bundling models.
Interestingly, many of the new media entrants seem focused, in one form or another, on recreating the news bundle in a digital environment. Nate Silver and Ezra Klein have emphasized that the new FiveThirtyEight and Project X won’t be limited to politics, but will extend a common analytical approach to hard and soft news across topics ranging from politics to sports and pop culture. Project X’s corporate parent, Vox, is itself assembling a sort of branded digital bundle in its suite of sites, which already cover tech, sports, food, real estate, and more. Omidyar has outlined a similar vision for First Look—a “family of digital magazines” under a common umbrella. (Disclosure: Omidyar’s philanthropic foundation is a key supporter of CJR’s United States Project.) News innovators are clearly trying to build online media brands that aren’t limited to a niche audience.
But even if these bundles work as a business model, they are not well-designed to deliver the particular civic benefits newspapers traditionally offer. First, they seem likely to attract an elite audience, which risks further exacerbating existing inequalities of political knowledge and engagement. They also, obviously, focus on national and international events, which can actually cause educated audiences to tune out of local news. A previous study found that the expansion of The New York Times in local newspaper markets was associated with a decline in participation in local elections among the college-educated.
What are the implications for local coverage and civic engagement? The cratering of newspapers’ business models has led to a well-documented decline in local and state coverage as well as a corresponding surge of interest in mission-oriented nonprofits and other digital startups attempting to fill the void. But even the best, most engagement-oriented of these sites, like Voice of San Diego and Texas Tribune, represent the unbundling of state and local news from the rest of the newspaper.
Could local news sites and newspapers learn from the new national and global entrants about how to combine hard news reporting with other elements of the news bundle? Will someone find a way to make local for-profit digital news sustainable and scalable? Would converting local newspapers to nonprofits help make them sustainable and preserve their remaining civic value? The way forward isn’t clear, but if we want to retain the civic benefits of newspapers, some innovator must find new ways to bundle the news we want with the news we need.