End of an Admirable Fallacy: Local News

Journalists falsely believe that a popular demand exists for what has traditionally been known as local news. It’s an admirable fallacy that they’ve believed for more than 200 years. Yet now that some teams of journalists have founded Web sites offering only local news and tried to charge for it, they are discovering how shallow the demand for traditionally reported local news actually is.

For those 200 or more years, three factors have camouflaged the mediocre demand for local news: the packaging of local news with international and national news, the distraction factor that such traditional packages used to have, and the utility of local information that isn’t in story format.

Local news has traditionally been reported via stories: Stories about town council meetings. Stories about town zoning, sewer, roads, and parks department hearings. Feature stories about local citizens, fairs, and other human interest topics. The hallmark of local news as we traditionally know it is in story form.

Local stories are what budding journalists are first trained to write. It’s the formative part of their careers. No wonder they value this traditional form of news so highly!

Indeed, local stories are the core of most daily newspapers’ and local broadcast stations’ news reports and make up the entire content of almost all weekly newspapers.

However, that’s not because local news makes up the most popular component of daily newspapers’ and local broadcast stations’ news reports. In almost every community, international and national news stories are more popular than local news. Unfortunately, because most daily newspapers and local broadcast stations package local news with international and national stories, local journalists tend to think the stories they’ve written are the most popular component of the package. Once local news is removed from that package and marketed alone online, it becomes obvious just how little people value it. They aren’t willing to pay for it. (This is also why most weekly newspapers are distributed to people for free.)

The second factor that had camouflaged local news’ relatively small demand is the distraction factor that the traditional news package, whether in print or in broadcast. Twenty or 30 years ago when people’s only source of daily changing news was a daily newspaper or a local broadcast, people tended to read all of that paper or to watch or listen to all of that newscast — including all the local news — simply because they didn’t have much other new information to distract them.

Yet now people in developed countries have hundreds of TV channels and millions of Web sites and blogs, online videos, and social networks to distract them. They’re unlikely to distract themselves by reading, watching, or listening to that local news report. They have far more interesting things to do online and from TV. Local news reports have lost their distraction value.

The third factor is simply the story format. Local journalists don’t fully realize that the people who do read local newspapers or watch or listen to local newscasts often want just the local information and not a full story.

A significant portion, perhaps the majority, of people doesn’t necessarily care why the road is out; they just wanted to know it’s out and until when. They don’t really care who said what at the local school board meeting; they just want to know the school lunch menu their kids will receive that day. They don’t greatly care what the newspaper’s or TV station’s reviewer said about a local restaurant; they just want to know what the restaurant serves, when it is opened, how much it costs, and whether their friends and other people liked it. They don’t really care about getting the full story, but they greatly care about the utility of local information.

The solution, then, is to give them the abridged information, a concise précis of what’s locally going on around them. They’ll be far happier with that than with 24 printed pages or 30 minutes of video about the same information in story format.

Previously, local journalists earned money by reporting local news stories. Today, they are still too concerned with providing that and too little concerned with providing basic information. When people had scarce access to information, they were happy to have any of it and were willing to deal with it in story format. But now that they have access to so much information in print, broadcast, and online, they just want the facts.

If local journalists want to earn money in this millennium, they first need to provide comprehensive local information to people. Full stories should be afterthoughts.

To be successful in this new millennium, the local newspaper or the local broadcast station must provide a fully interactive database delivering the basics of the moment’s weather and forecast, road and commute information, complete local entertainment and dining information, local school sports scores and menus, and the like.

Investigative stories are worthy and always need to be done, but newspapers and local news broadcasters must first give people comprehensive information and data — including access to all the source data, be that the town government’s reports or each restaurant’s daily menu. Only then should local journalists consider writing stories.

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