The Current Newspapers, the tetrad of hyperlocal printed newspapers in Northwest D.C., is in bankruptcy. The Gazette newspapers in Maryland closed in 2015. Washington City Paper almost met its end but was rescued by local businessman Mark Ein.
Local news website DCist closed in November (because its owner was unwilling to let sister site Gothamist unionize). Reston Now and ARLnow in Arlington are providing local coverage in those communities, but similar sites in Capitol Hill, Bethesda and Dupont/Logan Circle fizzled. The AOL-supported Patch network of hyperlocal websites is almost defunct.
We still have The Post, the Washington Times, WAMU, Washingtonian, the Capital Community News family of papers, the Connection newspapers in Northern Virginia, Bethesda Magazine and others, including the site I founded, Greater Greater Washington.
Still, our constellation of local news sites has dimmed mightily.
The Post, of course, is winning (well-deserved) awards, but they've come for coverage of Donald Trump, national police shootings and the Secret Service. In the movie "The Post," Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) tells Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) that after publishing the Pentagon Papers, it won't just be a local rag in D.C. anymore.
He's mostly talking about going beyond the White House cocktail party circuit rather than actual coverage of the District, but that's because the latter kind of reporting never comes up in the movie. The Post had considerable metro reporting at that time, and it has some great people reporting locally now, of course. But it's a smaller operation than it once was, especially in Maryland and Virginia.
This region has by far the most reporters per capita of any metropolitan area, but most pay little attention to the city and are sometimes shockingly ignorant of it.
Editors know you click obsessively on the latest outrageous act or tweet from Trump. So do the algorithms that push things to your news apps and Facebook. The economics of the news business are tough. Widely shared national stories can pull in decent ad dollars, but it's a lot harder for a local story, even the most amazing one, if its potential audience is just the 6 million or so people in our metro area (or tens of thousands in a particular neighborhood) rather than the 320 million in the nation.
Print still commands higher advertising prices per reader, but it's shrinking, as the Current's woes prove. So is the audience for print, as more and more of us are glued to phones and tablets.
Engagement in local news is critical for citizenship and good decision-making locally. Without a civically engaged population, or with one focused on national news, large donors in local politics wield disproportionate influence and important, though politically thorny, issues get short shrift. That's why research found that local newspapers closing was followed by declining civic engagement, including declining awareness of congressional candidates.
And because they know our attention is on the federal level, many local politicians are glomming on to national issues even for local campaigns. City and county officials have enormous influence over issues such as where you can afford to live and how you get to work.
I'm not hopeful for a resurgence in print media or a sudden transformation that makes the hyperlocal market wildly profitable again, though maybe someone will be able to succeed with a clever business model where Patch and the others failed.
Rather, there are a few likely routes for local news. Greater Greater Washington is asking some of these questions in a panel discussion on Jan. 30 and working to build funding for a fellowship program for local journalism.
One route is philanthropy. There's the path Washington City Paper is taking, whereby a wealthy local magnate invests in the local rag in large part out of a sense of civic pride. Ein says he'll be working to make City Paper a sustainable business. I hope he succeeds, but nobody, including him, believes it'll be a huge moneymaker. It won't beat the return he'll get in the stock or bond markets, but the civic dividend is substantial.
There's also mission-driven philanthropy. Greater Greater Washington is a news site, but it is driven by certain values: an inclusive, diverse, growing region where all people can choose to live in walkable urban communities. As such, we're partly supported by foundations that share this vision, along with reader donations and earned revenue.
And there's crowdsourced content. A great deal of "reporting" now is being done by regular citizens on social media. Citizen-journalism tweets are more and more common in news stories. That is likely to continue. But we still need professionals who can take the raw material and craft it into effective and informative prose, weaving together different points of view. A healthy local media scene is good for everyone.
The writer is executive director of DC Sustainable Transportation and founder and president of Greater Greater Washington.