With a few major exceptions, local newspapers have become an endangered species. They were among the first to be impacted by the digital revolution when sites like Craigslist dried up classified advertising, a chief source of revenue, quickly followed by readers transitioning to online sources having become accustomed to content on demand 24/7. The ones that have thrived have positioned themselves as national newspapers — New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal — and have aggressively built a digital subscriber base.
Each local community has its own sad story of what once was. Los Angeles, our home town, was once a two-newspaper city. The Herald Examiner, best remembered for its sports and entertainment coverage, is long gone except for the landmark building left behind. The Los Angeles Times, after generations of family ownership, has been through multiple owners in recent years resulting in a decimation of the reporting staff, only recently being rebuilt under the ownership of Patrick Soon-Shiong.
Why should we care? From a cultural perspective it is important because local critics can help us better understand our community and what it has to offer, whether they are sharing insights on film, television, art, music, architecture or food. They support our local movie theaters, stages and arts institutions and over the last year have helped to sustain local chefs, not to mention the creative community. As newspapers have come to terms with diversity, equity and inclusion within their ranks as well as in their coverage they are dealing with the same issues that many of their readers are dealing with and are doing so with the transparency that we all need to commit to. As a result, they have become a better reflection of the communities they serve, whether it has been about the impact of COVID or the protests about racial inequality. The arrest of their reporters while covering protests, many persons of color, has only personalized these issues.
Local news has long been critical to keeping the city’s institutions accountable and in our city, the LA Times sets the agenda for other local news outlets, driving the daily budget for the city’s radio and television stations. While local blogs can be informative they are often niche or focused on a particular neighborhood, rarely in a position to root out corruption or break open sex scandals which take time and financial resources. The Pulitzer Prize-winning LA Times coverage was instrumental in removing a USC gynecologist responsible for abusing hundreds of students, and more recently Meg James’ reporting helped to motivate the exodus of two top officials with a history of racist and sexist behavior at CBS Television Stations.
So what are we to do? Becoming a subscriber is the easy answer, but there needs to be a compelling reason to do so. I still subscribe to and read three newspapers but most people don’t. I do it because I rely on the LATimes for local news and the NYTimes and Wall Street Journal for national and international news. As a publicist, I like to see how different outlets cover the same story, particularly when our clients are involved. I also subscribe to NYT Cooking because I love their recipes and multiple political newsletters as a self-declared news junkie.
Local newspapers need to super serve the local community and engage with readers via multiple platforms. Reporters, columnists, critics and editors who know the city well will become more important than ever because they are the reason we turn to our local news, whether old school paper, website or mobile app. Newsprint may become history, but hopefully news from our trusted local news media brand will not.