The troubling retreat of local news

Anthony Cogswell / September 6, 2013

 

PSBJ

By Alex Fryer

Earlier this month, KUOW, the region’s largest National Public Radio station, reduced local news programming from more than three hours daily to less than two. This comes on the heels of AOL’s decision to scrap its Patch network of community news sites in Washington, including Redmond Patch, Kirkland Patch and Lakewood Patch, among others. Earlier this year, KOMO Communities reduced staff for its local news sites. KING television canceled “Up Front.” KCTS cut “KCTS 9 Connects.” And the long, sad saga of daily newspapers is well known.

So clearly, people don’t care about local news, right? We can only assume that all these business decisions to reduce or eliminate content are based on sound and well-researched data. In America, we’ve never gone for state-run media. We prefer the model where news delivery is an advertising tool. Just like cigarettes could be considered nicotine delivery devices, newspapers and other media are really advertising delivery devices. Advertising depends on audience. No audience, no advertising, no content. That’s the way it works.

As a public radio station, KUOW was supposed to be different. But what if they noted that their audience diminished when local program “Weekday” came on the air at 9 a.m.? Don’t they have a responsibility to extend national programming and expand their listenership, no matter what?

I would submit the answer should be “No.” I don’t always listen to “Weekday,” or the other local programs KUOW eliminated — “The Conversation” and “KUOW Presents.” But I value their existence. They provide a place I can turn to when a local issue heats up. Their staff live in our community, and struggle with the same ballot choices, potholes, classroom challenges and public safety concerns as I do. When I learn something on KUOW, I can apply it to my daily life, not just my general knowledge of the world.

And when you consider the silenced voices of local journalism in recent years, the old thought experiment comes to mind: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? It makes you wonder if whole forests of news are falling across our communities, silently and without recognition.

I don’t pretend to know the silver bullet that will save local journalism. But for those of us who passionately care about community news, there seems to be a lot of standing around kicking the dust. Even those who make a living in communications and public affairs — those who either try to gain media attention or prepare for it — there is a sense of resignation, a quiet lamenting of the good old days.

Seattle is one of the most literate cities in America. When The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer locked in battle over their joint business relationship, a group of concerned residents formed the “Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town” and jumped into the legal fray, arguing that our community was better off with two daily newspapers instead of one. Obviously, the brutal economics of the newspaper business ended that effort, but it offered an example of the kind of pro-journalism sentiment that exists in our region.

The times may not be right for a similar effort. But there is a need for people who want and depend on a vibrant local press to stand up and say that community news has value beyond Arbitron reports, click ratings or circulation figures. News produced by local people about local issues is an immeasurable resource. Local news binds us together, provides a common frame of reference and holds local leaders accountable to their constituents and customers.

Let’s not stand by and say nothing as trends continue to shrink our community, and leave us feeling only the waft of falling trees.