I'm CEO of Newspeg.com, a social news-sharing platform. I've spent 20 years at the intersection of traditional and digital journalism. I've helped to invent ways to read and interact with the news and advertising on computer screens and iPads, and before that, I wrote news stories on typewriters and six-ply paper. I co-founded WashingtonPost.com and hyperlocal pioneers Backfence.com and GrowthSpur; served as editor of Philly.com; taught media entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland; and have done product-development and strategy consulting for all sorts of media and Internet companies. You can read more about me here.
The Boston Globe had a story the other day about the travails of the Portland Press Herald last week, and it included a plaintive and intriguing question from a reader of the struggling, up-for-sale Maine paper:
"Can you even be a major city without a daily paper?"
We're going to find out the answer to that before very long, I'm afraid. And it's worth thinking about what such a city will look like.
No, its skyscrapers will not fall, its roads will not collapse, its populace will not move out en masse. In fact, I'll bet that whatever city loses its daily paper–and it will only be the first of many–will continue to be a major city, pretty much unabated. Its media landscape will change, but in ways that may be much less radical than many people think.
Let's think about an imaginary major American city–let's call it Whoville–and its media ecosystem. Today, Whoville has a major daily paper (the Whoville Bugle), four network TV stations with news departments, an AP bureau, an alt-weekly, a weekly business tabloid, a couple of weekly (or daily) ethnic papers, college papers, perhaps an all-news radio station (and at least a couple stations that still do some local news), a ring of suburban papers–mostly weekly, maybe a couple daily–and perhaps a handful of in-city neighborhood weeklies.
Sounds like a lot, doesn't it? And that's just the traditional media. Whoville and it's 'burbs also are bristling with new media. There are enough local online news and bloggers that Examiner.com and Outside.In each can devote a dedicatedchannel to aggregating Web content about the city. Craigslist, Yelp, Citysearch and others have beachheads in the market, offering classifieds and reviews that are especially appealing to younger readers. Local outposts of MerchantCircle, Kudzu and other online business directories and Yellow Pages wannabes target local businesses. Local restaurant bloggers, sports bloggers and other specialists write about things they're interested in.
Whoville's suburbs have blogs, as well, and perhaps a startup hyperlocal site or two. Just about every neighborhood has some sort of listserv or Yahoo group on which neighbors exchange information. And there are any number of specialty newsletters, Web sites, mailing lists and publications that serve specific audiences, ranging from PTAs to moms to local hobbyist groups. Oh, and of course, there's WhovilleBugle.com, the daily paper's Web site, not to mention Web sites for the local TV and radio stations and the community papers.
All of these media outlets are competing for readers in Whoville and its suburbs; most of them are competing for advertisers, too. In other words, there's a lot more to the Whoville media ecosystem than just the Bugle. And I'm sure I left a few things out (every market has a slightly different collection of local media, of course).
It is precisely this growth in competition that has helped to make the Bugle's financial position so tenuous. Surrounded by competitors that are picking off different audiences and advertisers and offering services for free that used to be revenue streams for the paper, the Bugle has been eaten to death by fleas (some of them very large fleas!). Once king of the jungle, it's now just another player–albeit probably the dominant player–in the Whoville media.
Now let's take the Bugle out of that mix.
The Bugle's owner, frustrated by mounting losses and departing advertisers and readers, decides to close up shop. It shuts the paper, idles the presses, and lays off the staff. (There are somewhat less dire versions of this situation, in which the print product disappears but the Web site remains, or the print product is drastically reduced to perhaps publishing a couple times a week, but for the sake of argument, let's go with the full doomsday scenario.)
What happens? The entire Whoville media ecosystem, described above, steps up to pick off the Bugle's advertisers and readers. Some of the media outlets that were dependent on the Bugle's coverage to inspire their content (e.g. TV news and bloggers) will learn to look to other sources. But there's already a lot of diverse media in Whoville serving local news and information needs, and they'll fill a lot of the gap left by the death of the paper.
Inevitably, a group of ex-Bugle staffers, backed by local money, will start the Whoville Daily Trumpet, a fraction the size of the Bugle but much more focused on the city itself. The new paper will leave suburban coverage to the community papers and be smart enough to not even mess with national and international news that's available in a zillion places. With more focus, a much leaner business plan, hungry ad sales reps and hired printing and distribution, the Daily Trumpet can be competitive in ways the bloated, overextended Bugle could not be.
Many other ex-staffers will join the other existing media, beefing up their staffs and smarts. Still others will start blogs or small print or online media outlets to cover specific topics. Not all of these will make it, but many of them will, covering things the Bugle used to cover and serving various parts of the old Bugle audience.
Indeed, a year or two after the Bugle's demise left a seemingly enormous hole in the city's media landscape, that hole will essentially be gone. It will be filled by thriving, competitive media that already exist and a few new outlets that spring up in the wake of the newspaper's closing. The Whoville media ecosystem will prove to be self-repairing, much more quickly than a lot of people would expect. The residents of Whoville and its suburbs will get their news and information from these old and new replacements, and advertisers will use those substitutes for the Bugle to reach those customers.
The Whoville Bugle will be a nostalgic memory of local life–much like the Whoville Herald, the afternoon paper that closed without much of a fuss a generation ago, or the Whoville Daily News, which quietly bit the dust a generation before that. The Bugle will be toasted at annual reunions of the staff and remembered in dusty collections at the library and historical society, but it will soon be seen as yesteryears' news.
Let's get back to the original question. Will Whoville still be a major city? Sure. It will still have its various corporate headquarters, beautiful architecture and parks, international airport, pro sports teams, a thriving music scene, opera, theater, good restaurants, great neighborhoods and all of the other things that make up a major city. It just won't have its old-fashioned daily newspaper. And sorry, but the Bugle really won't be missed.