Big City Papers: Do We Even Need Them?

There’s been a number of news items on Rooflines in recent months about how the recession has finally led to the demise of many big-city newspapers that for years have tottered on the brink. Add my hometown paper, The Boston Globe, to the life support list. The New York Times, which owns the Globe and is struggling itself, last week threatened to shut the Globe down in a month if unions don’t agree to major concessions.

Frankly, I’m not sure whether to feel sad about this. For years the quality and quantity of the Globe’s reporting has been in decline as reporters are laid off or forced to cover stuff that doesn’t matter. Meanwhile, with the advent of blogs, people have flocked to alternative media where they can get a variety of perspectives instantly and can interact with writers. Isn’t new technology wonderful, and why should we feel bad that the washed-up daily paper can’t get with the program?

Dan Kennedy, a media critic who used to be based in Boston, brings forth an important question. Is the decline of newspapers an indication that newspapers haven’t kept with the times, or is it more that people in general don’t care about community as much as they used to, and that’s why they don’t read their community newspaper anymore. He says the younger generations are just less into community than their elders.

I kind of feel like this hogwash. Most people I come into contact with are incredibly busy and distracted, but they also pine for community and would love to find it offline, not on. Our society today doesn’t lend itself easily to building community, despite the endless number of clubs and online chats we can hook into. But people are still human, and they still need community.

It so happens that big-city newspapers are the wrong place to find community. Small-neighborhood weekly papers, however, are exactly the right place for this. In my Boston neighborhood we have a newspaper with outstanding weekly news coverage. The Boston Globe hardly ever covers what’s going on in the neighborhood, whether someone gets murdered or someone proposes a new condo complex. What do the people downtown or in the suburbs care what happens in our community? It’s the small neighborhood paper that cares, and thank goodness those papers will still be with us after the Globe meets its demise.

Small town papers do have a limitation, however. They are usually pretty limited to straight news, in the same “just the facts” style practiced by those daily papers that are now sinking like stones. The people flocking to the Web, or somewhere else, are looking for more nuance in their information. They want analysis and opinion. They want emotion. They want narrative. They’re tired of the same old paper because life is more interesting than what the same old paper can offer.

I always refer to the Anderson Valley Advertiser in Northern California as an example of the type of newspaper I’d like to see more of. Granted, the Advertiser is a very different animal — it’s sold in Socialist bookstores around the country due to its rambunctious left-of-center approach to small-town journalism. But what stellar prose! What emotions these writers must stir in their readers! More communities need this kind of material, whether off or on the Internet, to help them restore their souls.

If Dan Kennedy is right that younger people care less about community, it’s because the commercial drivel offered them by mainstream news media as coverage of their so-called community is a complete turn-off.

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


  1. Hyper local media is thriving, relatively speaking, in many different forms. The problem with for-profit local print media is that you need an already-engaged community to keep it going, with a good deal of advertising heft to boot. It costs a ton of money to keep those enterprises going, and the smaller operations that serve say, fewer than 10,000, are usually run as side projects of already wealthy investors. While I find that quality local journalism is regularly left out of discussions related to sustainable communities, an active existing community is always a good place to start.

    That said, I would submit that we need Big City Newspapers, but that they have a MAJOR responsibility to cover all things local — from road paving to leaf pickup programs — because they have the manpower, the resources, and the circulation scope to inform the reader as to what is going on on their streets. One of the reasons why large papers are failing is because people were finding their national and international news elsewhere, free, online. The hyper locals cover things that are not covered elsewhere.

    So while the recession might have exacerbated an already-dated business model, I place much of the demise of high-circulation print media on the newspapers themselves. They fought the Internet from the outset in the mid-90s by charging for online service, and only, in the past year or so, made their Web sites free, interactive resources that attracted Web traffic, advertising, etc.


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