Metro papers' new recipe for success: hyperlocalism

There was a time not so long ago when big metropolitan daily newspapers in the United States were players in the news game in the grandest way.

They covered their backyards, sure, but they also covered the nation, Washington, and the world. They set their sights high with bureaus and correspondents scattered on the map.

But times have changed, and as newspaper readers have disappeared and revenues have dried up, grand ambitions have given way to a narrowing focus. Papers are calling home, or cutting, their far-flung (and not so far-flung) correspondents to tend to more local environs.

Earlier this year, The Boston Globe became the latest major daily to shutter its foreign bureaus. Like other big dailies, it is promising to turn its attention toward better coverage of its home turf.

The moves are part of a trend in the newspaper business called hyperlocalism, and the thinking behind them goes something like this: In an era when news consumers can get information from more outlets than ever – through cable TV and the Web – metro dailies probably have less reason to fund distant bureaus. After all, those out-of-region and out-of-country offices are expensive to run and offer limited returns.

Former chairman of General Electric Jack Welch, who has expressed interest in buying the Globe, has reportedly gone as far as saying that he sees no reason a local newspaper would need to cover foreign events that others already cover.

What the papers should focus on, the thinking goes, is owning their backyard. They can buy coverage from China, but they can't buy coverage from two counties over. And, some editors will argue, it's getting beaten on that nearby story that is the killer – sending readers into the arms of local competitors such as smaller daily and weekly community papers.

Guardians of the old system, especially those correspondents who lost their jobs, argue that the new thinking misses some pretty big points. First, global commerce and communications are changing the definition of what a foreign story is. You want to know why that factory downtown is closing? It's hard to explain that without reportage from China, or Central or South America.

Second, the local nuggets of international stories, the ones that make them more real, are lost. Stories about, say, an expat who struck it big in Warsaw or the brisk business Dunkin' Donuts does in Wenceslas Square in Prague, Czech Republic, give international stories a human face and feel.

Critics of hyperlocalism are right on these points. When newspapers pull foreign correspondents, something is lost. The news gets smaller in some ways, and a complicated world seems more distant and disconnected.

Something can be gained, as well, however. In reality, the big metro dailies face real pressures at home.

The home areas they cover have grown increasingly complicated in the past few decades. The role of the metro section has grown beyond the old template of stories focused around city hall or the police department set off with some well-written features. The nation's urban sprawl has turned many metro areas into regional city-states.

Consider the growth of the US Census's Metropolitan Statistical Areas (those are the metro areas as the Census defines them) for some of the nation's largest cities between 1981 and 2006.

In 1981, there were 5 counties in Boston's MSA, in 2006 there were 7. Chicago had 6 counties in its MSA in 1981 and 14 counties in 2006. Houston went from 6 counties to 10. St. Louis went from 8 counties to 16. And Washington's MSA (outside the District) went from 7 counties to 15.

Each one of those new counties means a lot more people and communities to cover. There are more governments, more schools, more businesses. There are more clubs and more neighbor-hoods. And as these metro areas expand, there are indeed more cultures as well – communities over time tend to develop their own identities and idiosyncrasies.

So, yes, there may be something to be said for improving local coverage – even "hyper" improving it. Creating fuller, richer pictures of these bigger super-metro areas would really provide readers something valuable.

But there is one massive caveat that comes with the hyperlocalism argument.

Doing this new, more complex local coverage is probably not going to be a way to do things more cheaply.

Simply closing distant offices or letting go of foreign correspondents won't improve local coverage. Making local coverage better is ultimately going to require a reimagining of the way the coverage is done. And doing it right may be just as expensive – even more expensive – than having a few reporters in distant lands.

Is that what hyperlocal advocates have in mind? That isn't yet clear.

At the moment, the phrase isn't so much a new way of doing journalism as it is a slogan. The question is: Will hyperlocalism lead newspapers to a new, more sophisticated way of covering their bigger backyards or will it simply become a new way to describe doing less?

Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, writes a twice-monthly column on media issues. E-mail him at Dante Chinni.

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