Thursday, June 9, 2011

The news/information paradox

The theory that easy access to more information does actual violence to the quantity and quality of journalism now has some research behind it.

“In many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting,” wrote Steve Waldman in a report for the Federal Communications Commission and reported last week in the New York Times. “The independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism — going so far as to call it crucial to a healthy democracy — is in some cases at risk at the local level.”

What began as a business issue – how newspapers can remain profitable in the Age of Entertainment – is now becoming a vastly more urgent one. It’s one thing for newspapers to shrink in size or even for a few of them to go out of business. It’s quite another when the result of less local reporting is the loss of accountability for local governments. Waldman, a former reporter himself, fears it’s already happening.

It may come as no surprise that I have a theory or two about this.

First, more and more people are turning to a narrower selection of information sources. This sounds initially like a contradiction, but think about it. A generation or two ago, there were fewer information sources but they tended to be broader in scope. Information consumers were exposed to a wider selection of ideas. Today, there’s reason to believe that Americans increasingly turn only to information sources that reinforce their already-held ideas.

So, liberals rely on MSNBC and Huffington Post, conservatives on Fox News and the Drudge Report. For every narrow niche there is a source of information that caters to it.

In turn, this has exploded the advertising options for businesses, many of which used to spend almost exclusively with newspapers and television stations. As revenues got tighter, newsrooms got smaller. The issue for newspaper isn’t reduced readership – most of us have more readers than ever. Advertising, however, is being split among more competitors. The Post Register has not been immune to this.

Our response has been to refocus our resources onto covering local news with a lesser emphasis on national and world news. We’d like to have more feet on the streets covering local stories, but we’re doing pretty well. If anything, the value of our local news has never been greater.

For newspapers, the challenge is to discover sustainable business models in a vastly more complex world. For information consumers, I offer this simple but heartfelt proposition: Love it or hate it, read your local newspaper. It’s where journalism starts, and journalism is a vastly different thing than most of what you read on your laptop, smart phone or TV screen.

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