Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the Dallas Morning News had dropped its hyper-local news Web sites. This version has been updated.
The Manassas News & Messenger survived Reconstruction, multiple recessions and depressions, assorted wars and the dismantling of Jim Crow laws throughout Virginia and the South. But the Internet was another matter.
When the 10,000-circulation daily newspaper on the fringe of the Washington metropolitan area succumbed in late 2012 after 143 years in operation, its new owner — BH Media Group, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway — said the operation was no longer viable in a digital world. The paper, BH chairman Terry Kroeger said at the time, suffered from “negative financial momentum” that his company couldn’t reverse.
The demise of the News & Messenger tells a small story about a larger movement within the news business. Even in prosperous, well-educated Prince William County, local news has become a tough sell, especially online. It’s not that people aren’t interested in their communities — local news usually ranks as the top priority in surveys — it’s that the economics of the digital age work strongly against reporting about schools, cops and the folks down the street.
In drawing readers and viewers from a relatively small pond, local news outlets struggle to attract enough traffic to generate ad dollars sufficient to support the cost of gathering the news in the first place. Conversely, sites that report and comment on national and international events draw from a worldwide audience, making it relatively easier to aggregate a large audience and the ad dollars that come with it.
One result: A steady, years-long decline in local-news reporting, as newspapers — the largest source of local news — have gradually cut back their reporting staffs.
A second upshot: The biggest investments in digital news have gone toward start-up ventures that target broad and borderless audiences, bypassing community news altogether.
The gradual erosion of local news can be glimpsed in a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Project on Journalism. The Washington-based organization says in its annual “State of the Media” report that digital news continues to grow, but that the strongest gains have been among sites with a national focus, not those covering city hall or the local high school team.
The report found that just 30 national and international news sites — Vice, Huffington Post, Politico, Buzzfeed, Mashable, among others — accounted for about 60 percent of all the new digital journalism jobs created over the past five or so years.
This new burst of hiring, however, didn’t come close to replacing the jobs lost at “legacy” local news organizations, such as newspapers and radio and TV stations. Newspapers alone have cut some 14,000 newsroom positions over the past six years, or nearly 30 percent of their total employment, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In 2012, the most recent year of ASNE’s newsroom census, total newsroom employment nationwide was 38,000, the lowest since the organization began counting in 1978.
“Local news and information is a key area of interest to the American public, but how that news is supported remains a question,” said Amy Mitchell, Pew’s director of journalism research, in an interview. “It’s a question many news organizations are struggling with.”
The slow deterioration of local-news reporting has been a source of alarm in some quarters for years, especially the retreat from state- and local-government accountability reporting. In 2009, a blue-ribbon panel backed by the nonprofit Knight Foundation warned of a “crisis” among “local journalistic institutions that have traditionally served democracy.” In a 2011 report, the Federal Communications Commission concluded, “The independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism . . . is in some cases at risk at the local level.”
If there’s any good news about local news it’s that hundreds of former “legacy” journalists have jumped into the breach left by the decline of their traditional news outlets to start local and “hyperlocal” news sites around the country.
The sites, ranging from neighborhood journals such as the Prince of Petworth blog in Washington to the countywide ARLnow in Arlington, publish news about community events, crime, traffic, schools and neighborhood issues. Potomac Local News, which operates hyper-local sites in Prince William and Stafford counties, began in 2010, just before the demise of the daily News & Messenger.
The start-ups aren’t a perfect substitute for what’s been lost, but many are covering their communities in ways that legacy outlets did not or could not, said Jan Schaffer, executive director of American University’s J-Lab, a research and funding organization for media entrepreneurs. In some places, like Deerfield, N.H., which lost its weekly paper years ago, The Forum — a mostly volunteer site — is the only provider of daily news, she said. Some regional and statewide sites, such as OklahomaWatch.org, do statehouse news and document reporting that is more “robust” than traditional outlets have done. There are specialty sites, too, focusing on local public schools, local health or arts, she said.
The bad news: Many, if not most, of these sites remain small and financially precarious, more labors of love than sustaining businesses, said Schaffer. “I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a ton of profit on this,” she said. “It’s always going to be a low-margin business. But so are grocery stores.”
Even the big guys have been flummoxed by the challenges of making community news pay off. Newspapers such as The Washington Post and the New York Times have abandoned hyper-local pilot programs. TBD.com, a local news site funded by Allbritton Communications, the Arlington-based parent of Politico, had a brief flowering before wilting in 2011. Backfence, a Washington area community news start-up backed in part by Ebay billionaire Pierre Omidyar, folded in 2007. (Omidyar is now backing a new news venture, First Look Media, that is focused on national news and is headed by Glenn Greenwald).
The most high-profile “hyperlocal” news venture, Patch.com, has run a ragged course since its founding in 2007. The company, owned by AOL Inc. until January, expanded into a collection of more than 900 sites, each focusing on news in a specific community. But the operation never gained profitability, losing more than $200 million since its founding by Tim Armstrong, AOL’s chief executive. Last year, AOL laid off hundreds of Patch employees and began looking for an exit. It found one earlier this year when it effectively sold its majority interest to Hale Global, a company that specializes in turning around troubled companies.
Such flameouts make digital-news entrepreneurs like Scott Brodbeck look like media barons by comparison. Brodbeck, a former news writer for Washington TV stations, started ARLnow.com in 2010 to cover news in Arlington. He then added similar sites in Bethesda in 2012 and Reston in October, both territories plied by Backfence and Patch.
Nowadays, Brodbeck’s company, Local News Now, consists of three journalists, a sales director and himself — a relatively large operation by “hyperlocal” standards. He expects the company to turn a small profit this month, another achievement.
“The reason I started this in the first place is because I’m a big believer in local news and community news,” he said. “I watched the decline of local media and believed I could do something to ensure that local news lived on past the demise of the legacy media.”
TV stations and small-town newspapers still remain relatively profitable, though not as much as they were in the pre-Internet era. Buffett, perhaps the greatest investor in modern history, bought the Manassas paper and 62 others from Media General Inc. of Richmond in 2012 because most of the chain’s properties were in rural and small markets where media competition is less intense than in bigger cities.
Kroeger, the chairman of Buffett’s media division, said in an interview this week that the small-town strategy has largely held up for his daily and weekly newspapers. “We’re seeing some declines but not anything alarming,” he said.
That’s probably little comfort to former readers of the News & Messenger, which was closed six months after Buffett acquired it in his deal with Media General.
Manassas Mayor Hal Parrish says the daily paper provided a connection that hasn’t been fully replaced by blogs, weekly newspapers or other local sources, such as Potomac Local News.
“As a government made up of representatives of the people, it’s important to have an independent media watching,” Parrish said. “When you lose the local newspaper, you lose the ability to know what’s happening in the community on a regular basis. I hear from people all the time about it. They don’t know as much [about the community] as they used to.”
What do they miss most? In addition to civic news and local sports, Parrish says it’s the obituaries. “If there was a funeral for so-and-so, they weren’t aware of it,” he said. “You can’t get that information every day unless you call a funeral home.”