Can reporting co-ops save the local newspaper?

Newspapers simply will not survive under their existing business model. Readers and advertisers are leaving in droves. Newspapers are losing out to competition from alternative news sites–including aggregators such as Yahoo! News and Google–delivering pithy electronic news bites to on-the-go consumers. Newspapers’ own websites are increasingly displacing the printed word, but they haven’t been able to sufficiently monetize content as on-line readers resist having to pay for content and advertising hasn’t delivered enough revenue.

In the six months from April to September, the top 400 newspaper in the U.S. saw their weekday circulation decline by a staggering 10.6%, and that followed what had been considered a horrific circulation decline of 6.1% the previous six months, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s latest data.

Unless something changes quickly, you can write the newspaper’s obituary.

Along with similar pressures facing traditional television news operations, the death of the newspaper could spell the end to strong, competent news reporting. Who will provide the reporting for the news aggregators to collect and distribute? Or will hard reporting largely go by the waste side, largely replaced by entertainment fluff and gossip? And even if a few strong, national news organizations–such as the Wall Street Journal and USA Today–survive, who will do the indispensable but not very lucrative work of reporting on local issues?

One possible remedy to this dark picture could be provided by local news co-ops. The New York Times has begun publishing a local edition in San Francisco and is moving ahead with plans for a Chicago edition as well, stepping into voids in those markets caused by newspaper bankruptcies. The Wall Street Journal has similar plans. While these localized national papers will put additional financial pressure on truly local newspapers in those markets, they also are spawning news co-ops that may be the future of serious local news journalism.

In Chicago, the non-profit news co-op will be headed by James E. O’Shea, a former editor of the Los Angeles Times and a former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, and other well-regarded journalists will step into key reporting and editing responsibilities. The co-op will provide content for the NY Times’ Chicago edition as well as for Chicago public TV and radio stations. It will compete with the news organizations of the Tribune and Sun-Times, both in bankruptcy, at least as long as those newspapers continue to exist.

In smaller markets, perhaps non-profit news co-ops will supply reporting for all of the area’s newspaper, broadcast and web news outlets just as pool arrangements today cover national news stories that are either prohibitively expensive or are not conducive to being covered by the full circus of dozens of camera and sound crews.

Whenever a full complement of news organizations are replaced with a single reporting operation, the worry grows about compromised or less than fully objective news coverage. But as the economics of news organizations grows increasingly dismal, it may be the only local alternative.

P.S. – Nearly three years ago, I posed the question here: “Does the newspaper have a future?” But I certainly did not foresee the dire situation newspapers find themselves in currently. In fact, the lead of my post was: “Reports of the death of the newspaper have been greatly exaggerated.”

- Jon Harmon

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