Michael Miner’s excellent column in the Chicago Reader this week features a discussion with former Chicago Tribune editor Richard Longworth, who, in a new book, laments on how Midwesterners will learn about the globalized world as the major newspapers in the region, such as the Trib, Des Moines Register, and Cleveland Plain Dealer, focus their staffs on local news.
“As a former newspaperman,” he’s quoted in the column, “I worry about how Midwesterners will learn about the globalized world that will determine their future. Once the Midwest boasted excellent newspapers—in Chicago, Minneapolis, Des Moines, Detroit, St. Louis, Madison, Cleveland—committed to telling their readers about their world.”
But these newspapers are no longer providing the world news because, he says in the column: “… All over the Midwest, local news, no matter how trivial, is squeezing out the global coverage that readers need to make sense of their world.”
Two fallacies arise with his argument:
1. Mr. Longworth is obviously an old newspaper man, and his arguments assume that newspapers are the only channel for Midwesterners to get a global perspective. This was true in ’70s. His vision fails to take into account that the explosion of information that has occurred with cable news and Internet. A Des Moines resident no longer needs to wait for the paper to hit his doorstep every morning to find out about the issues in Europe, China, or Sudan. They can now look to the likes of the New York Times, CNN, or the BBC to not only get that information, but also have that information delivered to them electronically.
2. Mr. Longworth also assumes the philosophy of “if you write about it, they will read it.” Reader habits have changed drastically since the ’70s, and unfortunately regional newspapers are finding readers have more interest in Main Street than Red Square. Even if the Cleveland Plain Dealer did a multi-part series on the effects of China’s emerging global dominance on the local economy, who beyond the Pulitzer committee would put the time and effort in reading the entire series? It is unfortunate, but people are more drawn to world affairs today when Bono or Angelina Jolie … not journalists from Cleveland … bring it to light.
The media … and old-world journalists … must realize that the medium no longer is the message. Information is the new product, not paper. Readers will pick and choose their information from a cafeteria of sources, both traditional and non-traditional. This is why marketing and branding is so important in the news business today (and why the new focus of Northwestern’s Medill School is a valid one).
In this world, CNN, BBC, New York Times and Washington Post will be among the leaders in the global information market. Local newspapers … at least those who have already established themselves as a “local source” and understand the transition to new media … will take the lead in the local news markets.
Unfortunately, Mr. Longworth, in this world there will be no room for “regional newspapers,” and their only choice will be to focus on being the local news leaders.
This doesn’t mean they still cannot do great analytical journalism, bringing global issues to the local level. It does mean, however, that no matter how big or small, a newspaper can no longer be all things to all people.