Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Going Paperless: Is there a future for local news?

Illustration by Rich Hauck.

I read a lot of stories about the news industry.

That’s no huge surprise, given that I run a newspaper and serve on the board of the state press association.

However, recently, one story struck me because it didn’t blame the usual suspects for the sorrowful state of the industry— i.e., the tech giants, the vulture capitalists and the newspapers themselves (all deserving of their fair share).

This article, which appeared in Politico, laid the blame squarely on newspaper readers. So, are you, cherished reader, responsible for the national flushing of the newspaper industry?

In his opinion piece, Jack Shafer, Politico’s senior media writer, essentially stated that local coverage is the broccoli of news—few people actually want to consume it.

“It’s not that nobody wants to read local news,” Shafer wrote. “It’s just that not enough people do to make it a viable business.”

Now, I love both broccoli and local news. Give me a heaping plate of green florets and a ripping-good zoning board article, and I’m all set for the night. But, sure, I can understand that not everyone shares my unusual affections.

I thought that Shafer made a fair point. Few people ever subscribed to the local newspaper because of its school board coverage. They subscribed to the local newspaper for a hundred other reasons, plus, maybe—maybe not—the broccoli-like school board coverage.

Back in the 1970s, when I was a kid, few things were greeted in my house with more enthusiasm than the Sunday newspaper. Who got the sports section first? The Sunday magazine? The comics?

At our kitchen table, we were like a pack of hyenas ripping into a gazelle. By noon, you could hardly tell where the world news section began and the lifestyle section ended. And, damn, my sister already got to the word jumble!

Perhaps ironically, I was little interested in the local news section. Then again, what 10-year-old wants to read about bond deals and sewer problems?

My point is that local news, standing alone, was never a newspaper’s profit center. People subscribed for the totality of what a newspaper offered: the news plus the sports plus the crossword plus the TV guide plus the food column plus the obits plus . . . everything else.

Newspapers may have devoted most of their expensive editorial staffs to covering local news, but that was mostly a civic-minded obligation. It’s where they spent their money, not where they made it.

We now live in a world where readers don’t have to wait until the next morning to find out how their stocks did or if their sports team won. At the click of a mouse or swipe of a screen, they have a universe of information available to them—and in real time.

Local news is about the only unique thing left to the local newspaper. You often can’t find it anywhere else, but, as Shafer argues, how much of a market is really out there for local news divorced from the rest of what we once called “the paper?”

Thirteen years ago, when we started TheBurg, many of the distressing trends that have now overwhelmed the industry had already begun.

Advertising was moving away from print, destroying the local paper’s revenue model. In response, newspapers cut costs, which reduced their staffs, which debased their products, which alienated their readers—which led to even greater revenue losses and, in some cases, distress sales and closures. A vicious cycle had been set into motion.

Nonetheless, we sought to build something new based entirely on local information, events and people. If local was the only real value left to the newspaper, we may as well embrace the trend, not fight it.

So, we launched a print news product based upon three “senses.”

Sense of knowledge: We would feature reliable, neighborhood-level information that you often couldn’t find anywhere else—and make it available to all.

Sense of place: We would be unabashedly about one community—Harrisburg, Pa.

Sense of surprise: We would try to make local news informative, fun, attractive and interesting.

Over the years, many people have asked me how we managed to launch and grow a print newspaper at a time when local news is dying. That’s how we did it—plus vital community support and close attention to the bottom line.

In fact, over time, we even added and expanded our daily online, free news reporting, which I routinely call a “charity” since it’s most certainly not a profit center. But we also consider daily local reporting to be an important community service.

Many people have told me that we should launch a Burg-like newspaper where they live—that it’s needed in their city or town.

I like to believe that TheBurg could serve as a model for a new type of local news product. To some extent, maybe the future of local news is like TheBurg: hyper-local, attractive, focused and integrated into the community.

So, yes, it’s possible, I tell them. But it does require extraordinary local commitment, on-the-ground talent and enough financial support to sustain it over time.

The era of the local newspaper is dead. Long live the local newspaper.

Lawrance Binda is co-publisher/editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

Illustration by Rich Hauck

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