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May 4, 2012, 2:41 p.m.

Nikki Usher: “Who Needs Newspapers?” It’s fewer people than publishers seem to believe

The George Washington professor argues small newspaper publishers are hanging on to false optimism that the importance of their work will save their business.

In the April/May issue of AJR, academics Paul Steinle and Sara Brown report on their travels to 50 newspapers in 50 states to find out what was happening in newspapers big and small, from The Seattle Times to the 12,000-circulation Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D. Their article (and full report at whoneedsnewspapers.org) might be the most optimistic future-of-news report we’ve seen so far.

Newspapers are trying to avert economic disaster. And the steps that some are taking show signs of promise — boosts in overall circulation, jumps in digital subscribers. But my concern is that newsrooms are falsely holding on to the belief that their community members will continue to see them as their most important source of information.

This view may be leading newsrooms to false optimism. Consider what we learn from the profiles of some of these newspapers in the report.

“There are no such things as sleepy towns,” says (Grand Junction, Colo.) Daily Sentinel publisher Jay Seaton, “there are only sleepy newspapers.” Citing corruption by city officials in Bell, Calif., a town that didn’t have a newspaper, Seaton vows, “That’s never going to happen here, because we’re watching.” So Bell’s corruption was really the fault of The Los Angeles Times for not doing a better job? Where do we begin with this statement?

Or consider this statement from Andy West, managing editor of Delaware State News (circulation 18,000 weekdays): “We provide information so people can make informed decisions and space every day so people can discuss what’s on their minds.”

And this statement from the Mountain Eagle, a weekly newspaper in Whitesburg, Kentucky (circulation 6,000), referring to their former publishers: “Because Tom and Pat Gish spoke truth to power, their family was ostracized.”

This celebratory conviction of journalists doing God’s work to protect the community appears throughout every portrait of the 50 newspapers profiled. But there’s an underlying, unacknowledged fact: Local news, and in particular local news online, is not something people care about as much as local journalists might hope.

As my colleague Matt Hindman found using comScore data: Local news gets less than half of one percent of all pageviews in a local market. Hindman finds that local news sites attracted 8.3 to 17 pageviews per person per month. People spend about nine minutes a month with local news, he found. Many local news sites are still struggling, beset by problems — long load time, poor design, retention of top developers and multimedia producers — that make it hard to increase engagement in a fragmented news marked.

The Who Needs Newspapers report says the keys to success include community-service-driven reporters and ethically managed reporting. And in each of the 50 profiles, editors wax on about their commitment to covering the important public-service news that keep citizens coming back to the newspaper.

More bad news: This isn’t why people are reading newspapers.

Political scientists and communication scholars have long bemoaned the extent to which people don’t care about civic affairs. (Political scientist John Zaller has proposed a model of citizenship where people only pay attention to news that directly affects them — the so-called Burglar Alarm model of attentiveness.) And, as political scientist Markus Prior has demonstrated, citizens have comparatively little interest in political news and tend to pay more of their attention to entertainment news.

Or take this claim: “Hyperlocal Web sites are blossoming.” In fact, as Hindman found, the traffic of hyperlocal websites is generally so small that it is actually immeasurable by comScore (less than 1 percent of web traffic per market). So sure, these sites may be flourishing, but by what measure?

The report gives perhaps one of the most interesting depictions of how paywalls are being used at newspapers across America. This is important detail, and I encourage anyone interested in paywalls to take a look. But as the authors admit, there is no “single silver bullet” to solve the industry’s problems.

What might work for some newspapers who have developed a paywall in a small community may not work in a big-city metro newspaper — or vice versa. Some newspapers are using a paywall with free headlines and weather and a deeper site that features paid content. The risk is that when people find better ways to access the local weather, they may feel little need to check the local news site at all.

One finding in the report that occurs in many of the state newspapers portrayed is that circulation losses seem to stop — or at least halt, or maybe even receive a boost — when paywalls are erected. But these news organizations are still tapping into the people who still read newspapers; to really understand whether these circulation numbers are here to stay, they must conduct a robust demographic analysis of who, exactly, happens to be buying these new newspapers. Staunching the decline isn’t exactly a business model, either.

Finally, this upbeat report on the importance of journalism and the future of democracy is really is a portrait of 50 newspapers in 50 states. There’s little indication about how and why newspapers were chosen, and no real way to compare newspapers against each other. The background summaries of each newspaper have inconsistent profiles to help us figure out just how much attention and staff news organizations are spending on say, local government affairs versus entertainment reporting, making it difficult to get a true sense of just how committed these news organizations are to doing what they are saying they are doing (see here and here).

The report does offer a celebration of journalism’s “iron core” of reporting. What’s disappointing is that we hear little reflexive questioning of journalism itself. File this one under future-of-news reports that fail to give us a clear look into the future of news.

Nikki Usher is an assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.

POSTED     May 4, 2012, 2:41 p.m.
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