Hope for the little guy

Despite the heavy hand of media giants, the local daily plays too important a civic role—and has survived too many challenges—to fade entirely

About the author
Susan Brockus is an assistant professor of journalism at Chico State and holds a Ph.D. in communication studies from Purdue University. A former journalist, she worked as a reporter, editor and publisher at weekly and daily newspapers in New Mexico, Oregon, Montana, Nevada and Indiana.

Sixty years ago, after the end of World War II, most communities had at least one and often two or three family-owned newspapers engaged in competition for both advertising dollars and the news. The reality of newspapers in the 21st century—even in small communities—is that they increasingly are owned by large media corporations.

It is almost without question that corporate newspaper ownership has improved production efficiencies that have allowed newspapers not only to survive technological change, but also to thrive. It also may be argued that journalistic standards have improved markedly in the past few decades. Journalists are better educated, with most corporately owned newspapers hiring only those writers who have completed a college education. Larger media companies also tend to have the resources and support to identify cultural and technological trends and respond to them in the most efficient manner possible.

And yet, as famed columnist Walter Lippmann said in his 1949 address in Iowa to newspaper owners, there is a need for the independent voice on the American landscape—a “there is safety in numbers, and in diversity, and in being spread out, and in having deep roots in many places. Only in variety is there freedom.”

From that time to now, the number of daily newspapers in the United States has declined from almost 1,900 to around 1,500, according to media researcher Ben Bagdikian, and the percentage of family-owned papers in the late 1940s—75 percent—is practically identical to the percentage of conglomerate-owned papers today.

Small newspapers have not vanished in the manner that entire downtowns did when Wal-Mart moved into communities across the United States. Nor have they proliferated in the manner of Starbucks.

Local news is a product like no other. It simply cannot be commodified and franchised in the manner that products offered by other types of retailers can be; it is anchored in the environment and culture unique to a given place.

Unlike libraries and museums, which preserve and showcase the past, newspapers bear an active role in the shared creation of a historical record and culture for a particular community, effectively serving as a “keeper of place.” In fact, community journalism is more akin to public service than retail sales. A primary mission of reporters and editors is to act as the eyes and ears of the people by monitoring the doings of government – staking a claim for the community where few but the most motivated of citizens choose to venture.

People who work at newspapers are accountable to the public. They are expected to do more, be more involved and help make things happen.

In short, newspaper readers don’t care much about the financial goals of the newspaper’s owner. They want—and need—to be reminded of and engaged in the issues relevant to their communities.

Changes in newspaper ownership patterns have resulted in a documented shift from local to regional commitment, with heightened attention to operating efficiencies and a corresponding decrease in the number of people employed in local newsgathering efforts. This is because large newspaper corporations inevitably share the primary goal of all large corporations: ensuring the financial success of the overarching organization.

Even as media corporations engage the potential of the World Wide Web, there are relatively few CEOs sounding the death knell for print. This is because local news is a product that is not a particularly good fit for the grander aspirations of the Web.

A local newspaper Web site is never going to attract the millions of distinct users a day that a hot site-of-the-moment like MySpace or YouTube will. Correspondingly, local news sites are never going to attract advertisers interested in national or international exposure.

Local news is locally important. This is the reason that community newspapers will survive challenges posed by both corporate ownership and the World Wide Web, even as they survived the seemingly insurmountable challenges posed by the advent of radio, television and cable television.

Common culture demands it. Notions of community demand it. We all should demand it.