American News Consumers Have Gained the World but Lost Their Backyards

The Internet affords cheap, easy access to priceless information. But local news coverage is a casualty of its rise.

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Is the American news media in better shape than ever before? Matt Yglesias thinks so, despite constant declines in advertising revenue, reduced editorial budgets, and layoffs at newspapers and magazines.

"Almost anything you'd want to know about any subject is available at your fingertips," he explains, thanks to the speed, range, and depth of information the Internet provides. Take the financial crisis in Cyprus. "You can quickly and easily find coverage from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and the Economist," he notes. "Or if you don't want to see your Cyprus news filtered through an America/British lens, you can check out the take of distinguished Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis on his blog. Reuters created an interactive feature that lets you try out different formulae for making the Cypriot haircut work. A pseudonymous London-based fund manager using the name Pawel Morski has offered vital, deeply informed coverage on Twitter and his WordPress site. You can watch a Bloomberg TV interview on the situation with native Cypriot and former Federal Reserve adviser Athanasios Orphanides." 

In this telling, worrying over laid off journalists "confuses the interests of producers with those of consumers, confuses inputs with outputs, and neglects the single most important driver of human welfare -- productivity." Are we not awash in good content? "Just as a tiny number of farmers now produce an agricultural bounty that would have amazed our ancestors," he argues, "today's readers have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read. Just ask yourself: Is there more or less good material for you to read today than there was 13 years ago?"

Every benefit cited in those passages and elsewhere in Yglesias's article are real and significant. If the news media's health is measured by how much high-quality content is available, the cost of consuming that content, or the amount of accurate, relevant information easily accessed on subjects as diverse as international finance, war, national politics, science, or technology, the web era has brought about all of the dramatic improvements that Yglesias claims.

But what if the news media is judged on these metrics: How well does it provide citizens the information they need to govern themselves? How effectively does it fulfill its role as a watchdog?

Judged accordingly, the verdict is a lot murkier.

That's because state, county, and local coverage almost everywhere in the United States is now significantly worse than it was in the pre-Internet era, when local newspapers enjoyed a virtual monopoly on classified advertising and invested part of the resulting largesse in local reporting.

As a curious person who enjoys learning about the world, the rich store of readily available information about Cyprus thrills me, but it does very little to help me better fulfill my civic obligations. Were I living in Rancho Cucamonga, California, a veteran city-hall reporter who improved my understanding of local affairs by just 10 percent would increase my civic utility far more than if I completely mastered the intricacies of events in Cyprus over which I have no influence.

This seems lost on the generation of political reporters who began their careers blogging about national politics, moved to Washington, D.C., and have only ever written for high-information news consumers intensely interested in national politics and policy. The work of wonks has real value, but it affects politics mostly by influencing a small group of elite insiders. A Seattle resident who reads Ezra Klein, Peter Suderman, and Avik Roy is bound to emerge with a very sophisticated understanding of health-care politics and policy, which may make him feel as if he is more meaningfully participating in American democracy. But from a civic-utilitarian perspective, it would make a lot more sense for him to spend his information-consumption time better informing himself on votes he is eligible to cast and problems he can influence. Casting a ballot for the best municipal officials and against the worst local initiatives may not enable him to debate health-care reform on Thanksgiving in as much detail, but it is more important.          

And local reporters don't "just" contribute by getting citizens civically useful information. A boring newspaper story about financial improprieties at the water district that almost no one reads or cares about can still have a huge impact so long as one of the few readers works in the county prosecutor's office. Local newspapers bankrolled and bundled a lot of civically important work that few people wanted to read with the sports page, the crossword puzzle, the comics, and the Sunday coupons. If you measure the quality of the news media by focusing on consumer utility, as Yglesias does, the civic value of publishing that material is totally missed. So is the value of having local-government officials who engage in less graft precisely because they know that a sophisticated observer is constantly watching them, ready to expose them if they break the law. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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