The New York Times just published a series of short essays about the future of regional newspapers. Entitled "Battle Plans for Newspapers", it includes pieces by myself, Nicholas Lemann, Craig Newmark, Steven Brill and a number of other new media experts. It's a provocative collection of thoughts which should be read by anyone worried about the future of their local newspaper. While there are inevitable differences between the essayists (particularly between myself and Craig Newmark over the value of user-generated-content), what I think unites us all is a pessimism about the future of the traditional print local paper. The great unanswered question is what, exactly, is the purpose of the local paper in the digital age? As Nicholas Lemann argues in his piece:
What’s essential right now is that we be precise about the socialfunction we need to strengthen, and creative and non-doctrinaire about how to strengthen it. Reporting does not happen automatically — it takes time, money, and training. It needs a support system. The best local newspapers have been a pretty good one for a generation or two. They may not be any longer.
My sense is that the real opportunity for local newspapers exists as a consequence of the radical redefinition of local information in the digital age. Web 2.0 websites like Yelp and Craigslist have introduced a wealth of local information hitherto unimaginable in the print age. But what is sorely lacking from this economy is trust. The opportunity for new local online papers is to curate and manage this information in a way that people will trust. The opportunity and challenge for local publishers is to relearn the notion of trust and how they present their value to their online user-readers.
So what does this mean for the future of the traditional local reporter, the full-time journalist employed by a local paper to research original local news? It's not good news, I'm afraid. At best, innovative local online newspapers will introduce the GlobalPost model of paying a stipend to local writers in exchange for a few pieces each month. But, as a I argue in my Times piece, the internet is, if anything, compounding the value of local information. Indeed, the winners and losers in today's First World Media War will be determined by who wins the battle for local attention. The good news for next-generation local journalists/entrepreneurs is that this battle has barely started.