Newspapers, cities, and the local web

Edmonton SkylineThe concept of “local” has never been more important – that’s something I firmly believe. Though I found the book somewhat wordy, Who’s Your City by Richard Florida presents this idea very effectively:

Globalization is not flattening the world; on the contrary, the world is spiky. Place is becoming more relevant to the global economy and our individual lives.

It’s definitely worth a read. So much of our lives is defined by place – by the people and things around us. I think this is especially true when you live in a city.

Cities are interesting because they encompass a range of place sizes. A specific block, neighborhood, area, quadrant, etc. right up to the entire city and greater metropolitan area. Some people identify most with a neighborhood or area, others with the entire city. Often their affiliation depends on the current situation (perhaps a neighborhood when it comes to family issues and the city when it comes to business). Consequently, the information individuals are interested in varies.

Newspapers try to cater to this range of interest. Here in Edmonton, the Examiner publishes stories for different regions of the city. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Edmonton Journal attempts to cover the entire city. Then there are all of the other publications in between. And some news simply isn’t covered by any publication.

There are many problems with this. A newspaper can’t get too specific, because advertisers won’t want to buy ad space if only a few dozen people are going to see their ad. As newspapers move toward a larger audience to attract better ad revenue, they inevitably end up with more general content. And of course, newspapers are not real-time.

Put simply, newspapers are not very good at representing places. For this reason, I find it incredibly bizarre that a number of recent articles focus on place as the reason why newspapers will not go away. For example, here’s an excerpt from a National Post story on Monday:

Newspapers retain their market relevance partly because flipping through a newspaper is one of the quickest and easiest ways to answer the question, "What’s new and might be of interest to people who live where I live?"

The printed version of the newspaper is connected with a physical geography at a specific point in time that few, if any, online resources can be.

How can any of that be true? We know that to truly find out “what’s new and might be of interest to people who live where I live”, we’d have to flip through a number of newspapers. And even then we’d be missing stuff. The second point is absolutely wrong also – there are many online resources that are intimately connected with a place and time. For instance, EveryBlock. Such online services are probably more connected with a specific place and time because they go down to the street level and often deal with real-time information.

Here’s another excerpt, from a Todd Babiak column in yesterday’s Edmonton Journal:

For its residents, a city must be more than a house, a car and a job. It’s a narrative, a living history, myths and conflicts, and for as long as Canada has been a country the newspaper is where the city has been inscribed.

If it is true that the city newspaper is dying, the city is dying with it.

Just because something has always been a certain way, doesn’t mean it’ll remain that way forever. Innovation is largely about challenging the status quo. Thus, the fact that newspapers are failing to innovate shouldn’t be a surprise. To suggest that cities are dying as a result is simply ridiculous, however.

I’m not falling for the myth that cities depend on newspapers. It’s true that a newspaper plays an important role in documenting the evolution of a city, but it’s not the only institution that does so. A newspaper is also not the only way to get information to citizens. Increasingly, citizens can get information directly.

I think we’re at the beginning of the “local” era on the web. As more and more people carry mobile devices that are location-aware, this trend will accelerate. Increasingly, online services will help answer the question, “what’s new and might be of interest to people who live where I live?” Eventually they’ll also provide context and background in a way that simply isn’t possible in the offline world.

Newspapers can play an important role in this local era. However, just as cities do not need newspapers to survive and flourish, neither will the local web.

16 thoughts on “Newspapers, cities, and the local web

  1. Local and “what’s happening now” can be covered off very well in the online world.

    A great example of this is the coverage of the opening of the new LRT stations. Bloggers (such as yourself) had the same photos, videos and information as the “old” media. Great restaurants, business openings, breaking news; that can all be covered in real time by people who are there.

    Where “old” media needs to shine is in examination and investigation of information and events that people with day jobs can’t afford to spend time on. That’s going to be the information worth paying for.

  2. Some great points Mack. I think there will come a point that newspaper publishers will start to see the need to change things up a bit (at least I hope they will).

    Regarding “what’s new and might be of interest to people who live where I live?”: there is a great web service in the US that has already recognized this niche and is leveraging the idea of neighbourhood-specific news: I really hope that at some point we’ll see them start to branch into a few Canadian cities.

  3. I agree Jeff – newspapers can be great at providing context and analysis. I hope we start to see more of that.

    Jeff Smith – agreed, EveryBlock rocks (I mentioned it in the post above). I’d like to see it expand to Canada as well, but someone will fill the gap even if they don’t.

  4. Serves me right for scanning. 🙂

    I’m also hoping we start to see a little more analysis from newspaper articles. I can’t remember the last time I picked up a physical copy of the Journal. It’s a shame that I’ve come to rely on online sources for my daily dose of local news.

  5. One of the main reasons our household still chooses to receive three newspapers (daily Journal, plus the Globe and NYT on the weekends) is simply the format. My computer doesn’t match the tactile feel of the newspaper. I can’t scan web sites/blogs in the same familiar way that I scan a paper. And, although I carry a blackberry and laptop with me on my commute, that folded business section is far easier for me to read on bus/LRT than any electronic device.

    It will be interesting to see if traditional print media start to market these advantages given the broad appeal of new media options. Seems a better approach than Mr. Babiak’s ‘the city is dying’ fear-mongering…


  6. As someone who loves gadget and new tech, I look forward to e-paper and other technologies for you Mike. Same tactile feel, but all the benefits of the electronic version. That’s fairly far off though I suppose.

    I’m the opposite – I hate the feel of newspapers, how they make everything black, how they’re far too large to hold open comfortably, etc.

  7. I guess my argument isn’t that newspapers/magazines are better, just that they still offer advantages because they are physical things. Without the newspaper, my daughter’s Oiler wall of fame (shame?) would be barren. Without printed media, my teenage son’s monthly Revolver-magazine-in-the-mailbox exuberance would be gone. (If you know many 15 year olds, you know how important ‘exuberance conservation is…’)

    I like the ‘family community’ that a paper offers on a weekend morning, each of us reading a section, exchanging stories, swapping sections, starting (never finishing) crosswords… Even if modern print technology still left black smudges on my fingers, I’d happily wash my hands (and kill off a flu virus or two in the bargain) in exchange for the experience.

    Must we really take our Kindles with us into the bath lest someone think we are non-progressive or, worse, unhip?

  8. mike,

    You sound like my grandma, pining for the days that the milkman would drop by with the neighborhood gossip and she and her sister would gather around the stove at night cross-stitching and sharing stories.

    As technologies change, so do experiences. I still get excited when the latest e-mail update from my favorite magazines hits my inbox, or get an interesting tweet, and I share more stories and news than ever with my friends and family (who are thousands of miles away). If anything social media has strengthedned ny personal connections with others.

    Must we really rely on a 500 year old, environmentally destructive technology to maintain ‘family community’?

  9. I do not understand why people cannot respect others’ points of view. Just because you don’t like non-electronic newspapers, doesn’t mean you have to slam others for not feeling the same way you do.

    Live and let live, folks!

  10. Newspapers don’t have a readership problem — combine print and online (and mobile) and the readership numbers are still up there. What newspapers have is a revenue problem: advertisers are no longer willing to pay premium prices for an imperfect way to connect with their customers.

    Here at Newspaper Next Central we’ve been working for the last three years on identifying new revenue models for newspapers. Short version: newspapers will become smaller and more local; newspaper organizations will develop a portfolio of products across all platforms that are designed to provide local consumers with any kind of local information they need; and newspaper organizations will have to learn to connect businesses to their customers in radically different ways than just advertising. There won’t be one revenue juggernaut any more, there will be many small-bore solutions.

    What are some of those ways? To list just a few: long-form video; directories and paid local search; contextual advertising; sponsored email and text; online mobile promotions; events; marketing services; database marketing and direct mail; partnerships with other local media. Newspaper sales departments will need to learn how to sell these, often to completely new categories of business, if they are going to survive.

    And yes, newspapers have been slow to the party, and non-newspaper innovation is springing up all around. These are interesting but largely partial solutions, and no one has yet figured out how to pay the freight for the expensive and vital in-depth local reporting and analysis that have always been done by newspapers. It’s a very uncertain time, with much wailing and wringing of hands, because no one knows what the future solutions will be. But I come down on the side that somehow we need to find them, because newspapers’ core functions are too valuable to lose.

  11. How can this be true?
    “For instance, EveryBlock. Such online services are probably more connected with a specific place and time because they go down to the street level and often deal with real-time information.”
    Aren’t they just an aggregator of media that already exists. If the nonprofit extremely local newspapers I run didn’t exist, EveryBlock and would have virtually nothing to link to regarding the communities we serve.

  12. Jordan said: “If the nonprofit extremely local newspapers I run didn’t exist, EveryBlock and would have virtually nothing to link to regarding the communities we serve.”

    That’s totally incorrect about EveryBlock. Linking to local newspapers is one small percentage of what we do. The majority of the news we publish on EveryBlock is public-record data that we’ve done the work of getting from governments.

    Adrian @ EveryBlock

  13. Information consumption has and is changing. News is a commodity produced and distributed by everyone.

    Look at the Twitter uptake, in this market since January, largely, inspired and enabled by yourself.

    Twitter has become another media broadcast channel. That’s not exactly engagement. It’s a start.

    Is local media contributing to the conversation? They are certainly taking and asking. What are they giving? A conversation is bi directional.

    A newspaper is a platform, not a business. The business is audience aggregation to sell advertising.

    When newspapers could create scarcity, they could charge monopoly prices for their content. They can’t do that, when news is abundant, dynamic, raw, acceptably, un-packaged.

    Does anyone, under 35 watch the 6 o’clock news for the entire hour? Local television is the next platform to fall.

    The challenge is how to monetize, when advertisers are publishers and distributors too. The answer lies in engaging the reader, the viewer, and the advertiser. Learning what each needs. Becoming a platform and facilitating the interaction.

    Mass media companies had a decade to experiment and learn. They chose not to do that. Now they are stuck. Talented people are out of work.

  14. “You took me out of context!”

    This is, of course, what newspaper people hear all the time. It’s totally unfair. You didn’t take me out of context but you did leave stuff out.

    I think we’d agree completely. When I wrote about newspapers, I wasn’t writing about “newspapers.” I don’t think the newspaper is the newspaper anymore. But the era of the local on the web isn’t really happening either. How can it?

    The post about the future of journalism is appropriate, because unless professional journalists get paid to do their jobs… no one is going to do it. If so, they will do it in the most superficial way.

    The Twitterverse, I find, is mostly populated by people with self-interest or corporate interest. City and community interest, for the sake of city and community, is something else. People like you (Mack D. Male) are rare, rare, rare.

    Thanks for doing it, though.

  15. Thanks for your comment Todd, I appreciate it. I think we do agree on part of it. When I say newspapers can participate, I mean the organizations and people, not the physical product.

    I guess we disagree on the point about needing paid journalists. I am not discounting their value, but I think there are plenty of people who can cover a specific topic well, and many who will do it for love/fame/recognition/joy/etc. When aggregated together, you get something very interesting.

    I look forward to continuing this discussion, thanks again!

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