Monday, June 1, 2015

Another lesson from Caro: the importance of robust local news coverage

One less obvious lesson of Robert Caro's The Power Broker (which I wrote about last week) is about the value of old-fashioned, shoe-leather local reporting in exposing corruption. Several of his most powerful sections recounted the neighborhood deterioration caused by the Gowanus Expressway and the blatantly destruction to families and the Bronx from the Cross-Bronx Expressway. His anger at the lack of on-the-ground news reporting from the multiple New York newspapers of the time seemed to leap off the pages at me.

Today, in my city of Charlotte, local news reporting is a fading art, because of the destruction of the revenue base for city newspapers all over the country.  Worry, if you want, about the New York Times (which back in the day appears to have ignored most of what Caro was writing about), but I worry a lot more about the hundreds of newspapers in cities like Charlotte, Raleigh, Portland, Charleston (which just won a Pulitzer), Kansas City, Fort Worth, Biloxi, Cleveland and so forth. If you live in one of those places, it's your local newspaper that has aspired to cover the community well and in-depth. (Are they perfect? Of course not. But who else is better positioned to noticing what is happening on the ground, and following a story that takes months or years to ooze along and that includes no murders or car wrecks? TV reporters? Please.)

Digital news significantly lowers the entry-cost for a news operation. No presses, no paper, no delivery. For years now, conventional wisdom among the chattering classes who observe the news media has been that hyper-local news sites have a built in audience and a built-in revenue base, if they can offer good content and their community is affluent enough.

Last week, a couple of excellent hyper-local, online news operations near Charlotte folded. and its sister covered their communities with serious, well-reported journalism. The community of Davidson, home to Davidson College, predates its surrounding suburban communities and possesses a historic and specific sense of itself as a "place," not just a suburb. The founder and editor, David Boraks, knew his communities and knew his business.  They are affluent places with plenty of disposable income. But online advertising was not sufficient to pay reporters -- even reporters of the species so familiar to journalism: young, inexperienced, smart and energetic. He did not pay himself much, if anything.

If a freeway were destroying a neighborhood in Davidson, Boraks and his staff would have been write there, chronicling it.

He folded. Online advertising and reader donations (he never put up a pay-wall) did not bring in enough money, even after nine years.

Traditional in-print newspapers have seen serious declines in advertising revenue, which has been their major income stream.  Online advertising has not picked up the slack. The Charlotte Observer has seen round after round of layoffs and buyouts, as have most newspapers in the nation.

If he were alive today, I'm fairly sure Robert Moses would be delighted at this turn of events.