Asking the Right Questions About Newspapers

Am I the only one who finds it problematic that 90 percent of the conversation about how to save newspapers is focused on The New York Times? Yes, it’s the single most important broadsheet in America. I very badly want it to survive. But shouldn’t a bit more attention be paid to journalistic enterprises outside of the northeast? Isn’t it suspect to presume that a singular big city institution can stand in for every newspaper in America as we brainstorm models to save journalism? Aren’t many of the vital things offered by The Times, like its international coverage, its Washington bureau, and even its book review, very different than the vital things regional and local newspapers do for the polities they serve?

I think so.

I’m becoming obsessed with California’s media landscape. The Golden State encompasses a paper that once had national aspirations, The Los Angeles Times, big city papers like the San Diego Union Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Jose Mercury News, a metropolis as big as Long Beach served by a ghost-of-its-former-self paper called the Press Telegram, publications as weirdly unclassifiable and distinct as the communities they serve — the Orange County Register, the Santa Barbara News Press — a ton of 75,000 to 150,000 circulation community newspapers, and small town papers aplenty.

All these publications are in trouble, they operate in a state rife with civic failings, and few solutions of even op-ed length are on offer.

I’ve no solution myself.

That isn’t because I haven’t pondered micro-payments, or endowments, or Web subscriptions, or citizen journalism, or even the new media consultant’s insistence that salvation for every Web venture lies in Twittering — it’s because there’s precious little work that’s been done to study what exactly newspapers do that is of civic value, what functions will survive the broadsheet’s decline and fall, and the most viable and efficient ways to revive the important stuff that doesn’t survive.

The task is made insanely difficult by the fact that every newspaper is different—a quirky bundle of stuff, the business section excellent and the sports section atrocious, and vice-versa in the next town, a public meetings calendar on page three here, but nowhere on the pages of the newspaper three towns over.

And each newspaper’s civic value is a function not just of its current employees, but of widely varying institutional knowledge, readerships and reader engagement that vary even more widely, and other factors too numerous to name. Figuring it all out would be an impossible task, but so little is now understood that I think it would really profit from intense study. It’s a foolish sort that observes the rapid decline of civic institutions as old, complicated and little understood as newspapers without worrying what will be lost… and as foolish a sort who proposes solutions without investigating what must be saved, what doesn’t need saving, and the best way to save it.

So help me brainstorm. Imagine I had a year and $75,000 to study the journalistic scene in California. The goal wouldn’t be to save newspapers. It would be to analyze what of civic importance is being lost as they decline and fail, and the most cost effective ways to save those things, whether via journalism or not. Maybe the answer is scaled down newspapers run as non-profits… or a league of pro-bono lawyers who help citizen journalists get the public documents that newspapers used to wrest from crooked city attorneys… or a state law mandating that all public meetings are recorded, archived on the Internet, and searchable by key word… or a some combination of three dozen ideas like that.

You’d naturally want to talk to laid off reporters and ask them what isn’t getting covered on their beat… and successful citizen journalists to see what resources what help them to better function… and see if you could partner with an academic who’d study whether newspaper readers whose publication has its own state capital columnist are better informed about state politics… and compile a list of public agencies covered by no one… and figure out what LA Observed and The LAist can do without any help… and what else would you want to do? What else would you study? Who else would you talk to?