The Rocky Mountain News is dead, and the San Francisco Chronicle is on life support. The Detroit Free Press, which just won the George Polk Award and Worth Bingham Prize for investigative reporting that led to the perjury conviction of a popular mayor, is reducing home delivery to three days a week. Community newspapers are dying, and online news media isn't filling the void. It's a bad situation.It wouldn't be so scary if online local news could fill the void, but that isn't happening. The SF Chronicle says it will now focus on its Web site, but it will be interesting to watch how many of its paper readers transfer to the Web. This means booting up the laptop or Kindle or iPhone (although my eyeballs hurt just thinking about that) at the breakfast table to read, um, "the paper." For many, grabbing the paper off the front porch and unfolding it on the kitchen table with a freshly brewed cup of coffee is easier, and more enjoyable.
For others, it won't even be an option. Consider a city like San Francisco with people of many different cultures and incomes -- how will families share "sections" of the morning newspaper from a family computer, if they can even afford one?
There's the question of media industry economics. With advertisers so confused about where to put their money now, I worry that online-only local news organizations won't have the resources to support staffs of driven, investigative reporters, and even just the daily news staffers who sit through hours of boring council meetings in search of stories that are going to get people talking and writing letters to the editor about what they think, or how they'd like things in their communities to change.
There's the younger generation, which has the world as its oyster, thanks to the Internet. For us baby boomers/early Gen Xers, our only news sources as young adults were the newspaper and the television. We were brought up to read about what was happening in our communities. I would bet money that most twenty-somethings don't go to their local papers' Web sites, as there are too many other options on the Web to grab their attentions. And most of them encourage an inward focus on me, me, and me, rather than outside awareness.
Indeed, perhaps most worrisome is that the decline of community newspapers is a direct result of a decline in our interest in our local, physical communities, and in some ways the Web is to blame.
As we become increasingly connected to our electronic worlds, we become disassociated with our physical ones. You might know what your Facebook friend in Maine ate for lunch, and think that "Omahacarlover" had a great suggestion for your car radio problem in that chat room. But are your mayor and city council members making the right decisions for your community? Is there a recent home burglary problem in your neighborhood? Was child pornography found on a schoolteacher's computer? Is the manager of your kid's hockey league embezzling money?
These are things that local newspapers uncover in communities across America every single day. These stories result from reporters who pound the streets, pick up the phones, develop relationships and sources, read through piles of documents, and go to meetings. The TMZ Web site isn't going to cover these stories.
If community news is transitioning to the Web, I see a rocky road ahead. Hopefully there won't be too many painful lessons learned along the way.