What happens in a news drought?

Throughout the United States, newspapers are downsizing. Whether or not you shed a tear for journalists, it's worth considering what happens in communities where no one is keeping watch on politicians, public officials, or city streets.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Thyra and Joe Galli read up on political news on the Internet and with print newspapers at their home in Portsmouth, N.H.

It’s old news that newspapers are in trouble. Younger readers are not subscribing. Older readers are letting their subscriptions lapse. Why pay for news when there is so much for free on the Internet, TV, radio, and on proliferating video screens encountered everywhere from elevators to taxis to checkout lines?

But if there seems to be an ocean of news out there, a decreasing number of newsrooms are producing it. Much of what looks like news is recycled from a few primary sources (mostly newspapers) and fluffed out with celebrity and sports items. That would be OK if serious news came along for the ride. But increasingly, serious news is being left behind.

Newspaper editors always knew that serious news needed clever packaging to get in front of readers’ eyes. They put stories about crimes and lost dogs on Page 1. They assembled teams of opinionated sports-writers and ran pages of comics and games, tips for handymen and homemakers, advice columns for lonely hearts, and horoscopes for the proudly gullible. 

They knew you had to buy a newspaper to get coupons, classified ads, and TV listings. In the process, they also slipped in news from the school board, statehouse, and city council. 

Most people didn’t read what news wags called “DBIs,” dull but important stories. But some key people did: politicians, civil servants, activists, prosecutors, thought leaders, and other journalists. As Jessica Bruder shows in a recent report in the Monitor Weekly, that small but influential group was often enough to focus attention on a problem, expose wrongdoing, and push for reform. 

And that’s the way it was. A reader bought a bundle of news each morning, sugar and spinach included. As journalism analyst Clay Shirky put it, newspapers “supported the minority of journalists reporting actual news for the minority of citizens who cared. In return, the people who followed sports or celebrities, or clipped recipes and coupons, got to live in a town where the city council was marginally less likely to be corrupt.”

Now, the Internet is relentlessly unbundling news. The journalism compact has broken down – most obviously in the United States, but the same forces are at work around the world.

Some news organizations are trying to cope by charging Internet readers. (The Monitor currently doesn’t charge for Internet content.) But so-called paywalls bring about a new dilemma. Note, for instance, what happened as hurricane Sandy approached the East Coast in late October.

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and others dropped their paywalls as a public service. Among others, media-watcher Mathew Ingram of GigaOM.com pointed to “the tension between the public purpose that many media outlets feel they have – to spread important information as widely as possible to those affected by it – and the need to commercialize that information in order to make money.” 

To put it another way: Are hurricanes of public importance but not the school board, statehouse, and city council? 

Reconciling money and mission is a huge challenge for news organizations, the Monitor included. And as our cover story makes clear, it’s not just journalists who have a stake in this.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. 

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

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