What happens in a city when its newspaper dies? I've written about this question before, and it's a topic that more and more people are starting to discuss openly as big papers struggle. I continue to think the answer is something that would greatly surprise those who think newspapers are practically the only source of local news. There already are plenty of alternatives—and many more to come.
I spoke this week on a panel in Baltimore called "The End of Local News? If Communities Lose Newspapers, Who Will Fill the Void?" sponsored by the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. It was a particularly timely panel in Baltimore: The Baltimore Sun is pretty emaciated these days after multiple layoffs
and cutbacks, and unfortunately it's one of those papers that shows up near the top of newspaper-watchers' private lists of big-city papers that appear to be particularly endangered. Baltimore could very well be a test case for questions posed in the panel's title, perhaps sooner rather than later.
The other participants were an impressive bunch: Baltimore Sun Editor Monty Cook, former Editor Tim Franklin, WBAL-TV investigative reporter Jayne Miller and Baltimore African-American Publisher Jake Oliver. The moderator was Merrill College Dean Kevin Klose, former head of NPR (and a former colleague of mine at The Washington Post.) For the most part, not surprisingly, this august crowd with deep local roots couldn't even imagine a Baltimore without its Sun, and as a result there was a bit too much of the usual printie
breastbeating about how only large metro newspapers can provide real local coverage.
Hogwash. And when my turn came to speak, I set out to prove it. For my presentation, I played show and tell: I cued up a couple dozen Web sites that already are providing coverage of Baltimore, right under the Sun's nose, and took the panel and audience on a rapid-fire tour of Baltimore's media ecosystem, circa 2009. It was hardly a comprehensive list—I'm sure I missed dozens if not hundreds of other blogs, hyperlocal sites, verticals and others that are already–and that's a key point—replacing the Sun as key sources of local information. Back to the panel's title: "Who will fill the void?" It's already being filled.
I've gotten some requests for the list of sites I showed, so I'll go straight to the examples and, as I did on the panel, let them do the talking, along with a bit of commentary about why I picked them:
I started with the Sun's site
. It's your basic one-size-fits all metro newspaper Web site. Then I talked about other traditional media that have always provided local competition to the Sun, in print and broadcast: Miller's WBAL-TV
, Oliver's Afro-American, the alt-weekly City Paper
and Baltimore's excellent business and legal paper, the Daily Record
. All cover communities, beats and stories the Sun doesn't get to—and have done so for years. Of course, I didn't even mention the other local TV and radio sites, ethnic papers, community weeklies, college papers, etc. These are longstanding members of the local media ecosystem in Baltimore that belie the notion that the metro daily is the only news and info source in town.
Then I pointed out some local vertical sites whose coverage areas map to (or go beyond) sections of the newspaper and serve specific local interests: Baltimore Real Estate Investing
, Baltimore Injury Lawyer
(whose "What's an Ear Worth?" headline got a big laugh), Gannett's MomsLikeMe
. Local entertainment, nightlife and city guide sites: 600 Block
, What's to Eat Baltimore
? and Yelp
, of course (which I think is now quietly doing the same sort of fundamental damage to local newspapers' entertainment, calendar and review franchises that craigslist did to classifieds a few years ago). And a couple from the endless list of local sports sites: CamdenChat
, one of at least a dozen local fan blogs that covers and opines about the Orioles; and Baltimore Ravens
, which I picked because it's a news and information site run by the NFL team, without any sort of journalistic filters. That's another new kind of competition for reader eyeballs the Web has made possible: direct publishing by the sources of news themselves.
I showed some sites that aggregate local info: Localist; Examiner.com
's local site, which pulls together bloggers and "examiners" writing about subjects inside and outside Baltimore (one of 60 such sites Examiner has built around the country, with so-so results, but uniquely positioned to move in with established sites if newspapers start to fail); Twitter
, to show people talking about everything Baltimore (Twitter coverage of the panel is here
, btw); and Outside.In,
compiling content from myriad local blogs.
I also wanted to show the Baltimore audience that there's other interesting local work being done elsewhere: the terrific VoiceofSanDiego
, which is doing the kind of local watchdog reporting that many journalists—including some on the Baltimore panel—somehow think can only come from newspapers, and its big-city counterparts around the country, like MinnPost, ChiTown Daily News
. and the New Haven Independent
. To show local community coverage on a smaller scale, I trotted out Baristanet
, two of the longest-running examples of the hundreds of hyperlocal sites now providing news and information for small towns. For a glimpse of what happens when technology is brought to bear on local information, I showed Everyblock
, with their unique ways of mapping voluminous local data and news.
As I said, this whirlwhind tour just scratched the surface—it literally took me only about 15 minutes on
Google and Outside.in to find my local Baltimore examples, and I know that I missed many, many others (apologies to proprietors of those sites for the omission; hell, the list of blogs started by ex-Sun staffers is a whole category unto itself!). And there are plenty more examples to come—after the panel I spoke to an experienced local entrepreneur who's planning an ambitious Baltimore online news effort, and I'm sure he's hardly unique.
The point is that the question of who covers local news and information in a newspaper-less city is a moot point. The replacements already are serving the audience the paper used to have to itself, and there are more in the wings. Are there business models to support all of this new media? Not yet, but there's no doubt in my mind that new business models will emerge to support local news and information. And besides—and this really befuddles traditionalists—some of the people who run these upstarts sites aren't even in it for the money. They're providing coverage of their city and specific topics because they love the place where they live and the specific subjects they cover, not because they're motivated by profit. That's a very interesting turn of events, and especially tough for big-iron, expensive legacy media to compete with.
Baltimore is hardly unique—the demonstration I did can be done effectively in any city. I strongly suggest that traditional media executives—and anybody who doubts that newspapers be replaced—spend some time trying to find and understand this new competition. It's out there, no question. There's more to come. The big-city daily newspaper, already on its heels, is hardly the only game in town. If and when it disappears, there will be plenty of replacements.
on Nieman Journalism Lab, Tim Windsor makes a clever point that the Baltimore symposium proved that events get covered even when newspapers don't cover them.