Been having some passionate debates at Columbia about the future of media, and particularly investigative journalism. In class the other day, I suggested that the best use of investigative journalism is on a local level–where you can actually get on the streets, gumshoe-style–and that most papers should focus on reporting what happens in their backyard. If local outlets don’t do that, no one else will, and communities will suffer.
I’m persona non grata in class now, because what I said smacks of New Yorker snobbery, as though I were claiming national news as the exclusive prerogative of my city’s papers (the Times, the WSJ) and those in other big media markets (the Washington Post). But I don’t consider the Times and the WSJ to be New York papers. These are international titles, and even when international news happens here (ie at the Stock Exchange or the UN), I don’t look at that as New York news. Real New York papers–the Post and the Daily News–report just on New York, and that’s as it should be.
An example: the Daily News won a Pulitzer last year for its coverage of the medical fallout 9/11 had on the emergency workers who spent time doing rescue work at Ground Zero. They’d have missed that one if they’d been busy with a national or international story. In other words, I’d be just as incensed if the Daily News got themselves a Pentagon reporter as I am when I hear about a Washington bureau for a local paper from the Midwest or the South.
The problem, as one of my classmates pointed out last night, is that very few people consume as much news as I do (most people have lives). So while I can read the WSJ, the WaPo and the Times for national and international information and then get local headlines from the NY1 TV station, many Americans want everything together. Going too local will reinforce the parochialism many foreigners find irksome about Americans.
It’s not that readers in cities outside New York and D.C. don’t deserve to hear about national news; it’s that their papers should not squander resources looking for it at the expense of local beats. That’s what wire services are for.
I’m not alone in looking for a news universe that is geographically segmented. Take a look at these readership figures for the top 5 visited news websites:
New York Times 707 764 000
USATODAY.com — 186,178,000
Washingtonpost.com — 163,844,000
Wall Street Journal Online — 107,333,000
Boston.com — 77,536,000
No local outlet is level with the nationals. But the one that comes closest is Boston.com, the website of the Boston Globe, because the Globe has smartly zeroed in on exclusively local coverage: Massachusetts stories and local sports scores. Today, there’s only one national story on the whole front page; it’s way at the bottom and it’s coming from the AP.
The real crisis, then, is what to do about wire-style reporting as the Associated Press hurdles towards collapse. Someone needs to devise a system for national and international news to be fed to papers for whom it’s not, and should not be, the primary bread and butter. CNN is starting its own wire service, and there’s ProPublica, but there’s no guarantee these business models will work any better than the AP’s. I’d like to see more activity and experimentation in this field–are there projects out there I don’t know about?