Let There Be News

Do the financial problems and looming editorial cutbacks at The Los Angeles Times signal a giant social problem as we become a news-poor society? Michael O'Hare makes the case. Personally, I tend to take an optimistic view of the technology-driven decline of the newspapering business model. The thing of it is that the very same IT developments that are killing newspapers also make it possible for newspapers to have much broader reach in terms of the sheer number of people for whom it's convenient to read them. On the internet it's a simple matter to habitually scan the front pages of three or four different major papers. It's also a simple matter to go read a newspaper published in England or Australia or South Africa or Lebanon or Singapore if you happen to have reason to believe that it'll contain something you're interested in.

In other words, the world could move to a state where there are orders of magnitude fewer papers than their used to be but wherein individual consumers actually have substantially more news sources they can draw from in practice.

The fly in the ointment, on this optimistic take, is local news. Really big cities will probably be okay. And residents of medium-sized cities should have better national and world news options than ever before. But who's going to be the guy who does investigative reporting into government corruption in a medium-sized city? I couldn't really say. Local news websites like DCist are a valuable contribution to our media ecology, but much like political blogs they don't really seem able to substitute for the core news-gathering function of a local paper. One possibility is that this is an area where we're going to have to hope to see some philanthropic activity; NPR provides a partial model for a heavyweight, somewhat decentralized news-gathering non-profit operation.