The New Economy of Local News

When I was very young, we read about national and international events weeks after they occurred. Signal events in the Korean War, advances in nuclear science, or the discovery of a rare tribe came into our home and consciousness weeks after they occurred — usually in Life, Look or Time Magazine. We heard headlines on the radio, but little more. In the late 50s when we got an Admiral TV set the size of our kitchen stove and capable of producing at least as much heat, we began to see snowy international events that were then only a few days old.

Local news, however, spread like wild fire through gossip and the four-party phone. If Lyle’s barn burned, the legislature was considering a new tax, or the parson fell off the wagon again, we knew all about it within hours, either by hearing it whispered on the street or on the neighbor’s phone conversations.

But compare the times it takes to get local news and international news to us today, and you’ll find an interesting inversion. We can watch a battle unfolding in Iraq, the eruption of a volcano in Greece or the closing of the London stock exchange in real time. Whereas In-depth local news now takes longer and costs more to produce as it does not enjoy the substantial pooled investment that national and international news gathering does. Local news serves a small market and returns small dividends. To its community audience, however, it’s often more important than news from afar.

Within Vermont’s broadcast and print media outlets we see and hear an over-abundance of dated world news that we could see even faster on our computer, Blackberry or cell phone. The ubiquity of national and international news supports the idea that the sweet spot for Vermont’s ailing media outlets is deeper investment in the unique monopoly of local news and analysis available to them. Vermont has precious little deep journalistic coverage and analysis of local news, events and culture whereas Vermonters can tune in to dozens of media outlets anytime and get national and international headlines.

Looking just at print media, the local papers that serve their communities with broad and deep local news coverage are faring better economically than traditional broad-brush newspapers. The same is true in broadcast where quality local news gathering has become a principle market differentiator.

Trying to build a successful business on one medium like radio, print or TV rather than on content quality and integrity is doomed to fail as both the technologies of distribution and reception are in constant flux. Who ever thought you’d be able read War and Peace on your cell phone? Whether or not you’d want to is another matter.

Vermont is rife with writers, journalists, radio producers and film makers who are out of métier and doing something other than their first love. The first media outlets to harness and utilize this rich resource within our community will not only survive in this new media economy, but will thrive. Content is and always has been king, albeit with new clothes.

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