Your ELi: The Destruction of Local News

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Saturday, October 24, 2015, 12:36 am
Alice Dreger, Publisher and Board President

Today I’m going to tell you about my trip to Berkeley, California, last weekend—what I discovered among the clouds of marijuana smoke and bare feet—but first I have to cover some history.

Once upon a time, there was no Internet. During this historical period, local newspapers were relatively plentiful in America, because the economic habitat for them was pretty rich. Most papers could charge readers to get access to the papers, and the papers were also able to make money off of advertising. If you wanted to run a personal ad or get shoppers' attention with a coupon, the local paper was the way you did it. Consequently, there was money to pay reporters and to fund production.

Then came the Internet, and the assumption on the part of most of us that we should be able to get our news (and music, and movies, and advice, and almost everything else) for free. Charging people for access and/or relying on advertising—these things don’t work as well for news outlets on the Internet. If you hit a paywall when you’re trying to learn about some story in the news, you can often find a way around it, whether that’s by using an Internet work-around or going to another news organization that won’t charge you. And the advertising? How often do you actually click on an Internet ad?

While the big, old national newspapers have been hemorrhaging money and trying to figure out how to survive, many local newspapers have either closed or been gobbled up by Gannet, the company that owns USA Today and the Lansing State Journal. There are far fewer local reporters doing far fewer local stories, and a lot of the stories in local papers like the LSJ are national, not local. None have the resources to do something like regularly cover, in detail, what’s happening at East Lansing’s school board or city council.

As a result, many small cities are now essentially without a newspaper. And this means the people of those cities have a hard time knowing what is going on, especially if they are busy people who can’t attend lots of meetings. And that’s not great for local democracies.

So what’s happened is that grassroots newspapers have started to spring up to try to fill the gaps. Folks who are journalistically-inclined and dedicated to their cities have started founding online news “papers” like East Lansing Info.

One of the most established, founded by Paul Bass in 2006, is Connecticut’s New Haven Independent. Their staff explains:

“The New Haven Independent is rooted in and devoted to the city. We believe that democracy starts at home, with smart, thorough, in-depth local news reporting and broad citizen debate about local issues. Thanks to the Internet, journalists and news-deprived citizens need no longer be hostages to out-of-state media conglomerates. We can reclaim our communities. Power of the press now belongs not to those who own one, but to those who own a modem.” (An update notes you don’t even need a modem anymore.)

A similar venture, although commercially-based, is Berkeley’s Berkeleyside, founded by three veteran journalists, Lance Knobel, Tracey Taylor, and Frances Dinkelspiel. I got to meet these three last weekend when I was invited to speak at their annual TED-like public dialogue event, Uncharted. Unlike ELi, Berkeleyside allows opinion pieces in the form of op-eds and letters to the editor, but like us, they strive to provide accurate, critically important local news and information.

What do these three papers—ELi, the New Haven Independent, and Berkeleyside—all have in common? They were all founded in college towns. I think this is not a coincidence; college towns are probably places where people feel more acutely the loss of important local information, because they tend to be places where people want more information, more facts. They are places where you can find a lot of people who can be reporters for you willing to work on the cheap.

As I learned in Berkeley, Berkeleyside happens to be in a city large enough to be able to sustain itself largely with advertising, similar to Lansing’s City Pulse. Even so, Berkeleyside also asks people to send money if they appreciate the service and can afford to contribute financially.

Is this model of grassroots, online-only “newspapers” sustainable? The success of “papers” like ours—not exactly the same as each other, but pretty similar—leads me to believe that not only can it be, but that it must be if small and moderately-sized cities are going to have populations that really know what’s going on around them.

The best part of meeting the Berkeleyside crew? Talking with them about the sheer joy of providing a news service to your beloved town. We agreed that while it may not be the easiest work in the world, it sure feels great to know people all around you are benefitting from your labors in immediate and meaningful ways. It feels…so American.

A reminder: We are in the midst of a fundraising push. Here's how you can donate. Do it now. Join the growing list of people in East Lansing who believe ELi is providing the news and information we’ve been lacking. We can’t do it without your help. (And we have real winters here, which means our reporters need shoes.)

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