Local Media’s Problem Is That Readers Don’t Care

June 9, 2015

My buddy Scott Smith says in a recent post “Chicago media is getting rid of what it needs the most” that it’s the civic responsibility of local media organizations to provide local news. His title is correct, but the underlying premise of his post, that it’s a civic responsibility, is wrong. Readers deserve what they’ll pay for. And right now most readers don’t want local political coverage and in depth news.

After lamenting the loss of more local news coverage in Chicago, he quotes a recent Knight Foundation report, which bears repeating:

“The report highlights that young adults care about their cities and have many concerns that local government can address, but these potential voters lack the information, habits, and social cues that would prompt them to engage and participate in local elections,” said David Mermin, partner at Lake Research Partners.

The report suggests there’s a cyclical effect: Millennials don’t care about local elections because there’s less quality local news. Lower turnout tells news orgs they should produce less local news.

Without saying it, Scott leans on an old saw: “If only someone would provide good local news, people would care.” It’s a popular trope among reporters.

If only that was the case. Great news does not mean great audiences or great revenue, something I’ve learned the hard way, and two more of my hyperlocal friends learned recently.

The news world is undergoing a tremendous transition to an hourglass shape, where there is  opportunity for publications that serve advertising to massive audiences or small publications that are paid subscriptions for niche audiences. Everything in the middle, like metro dailies, will end up losing their shirts. Other industries have endured this change and many have written about it. I wrote about it in 2009. Matthew Ingram wrote about it last week.

Because of the rapidly changing environment, local media’s first responsibility (even public radio) isn’t to provide local news. It is to survive. Most everyone in news has no idea what’s coming next and financial success today is a surprise and delight in this business, unlike ye olden days when it was formulaic. Those were the days when we talk about civic responsibility.

If readers want local news, they’ll pay for it. David Boraks discovered that the hard way. I’ve learned that with Aldertrack. Less than 1% of our free email subscribers are paid subscribers to our paid service. We’re not surprised by that fact, it was always part of the plan. We always expected to serve a niche audience. And that’s the kind of plan local news will need to survive.