Local and national media: once no difference, and now the central difference of newsrooms

One of the many economic ripple effects of the global scaling of the web has been an enormous rift between place-based and place-less news organizations.

As recent as the early 1990s, the business fundamentals of the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer weren’t all that different. They were all advertising and subscription businesses that used a newspaper model as its strategy, leveraging thick newsrooms to gobble up a high comprehension of readers in its audience segmentation.

The web has transformed this into what seems very obvious to you today. Despite the geography in their names, the Washington Post is read globally for insight into U.S. government affairs; the New York Times is read globally by an affluent tribe that identifies with its brand and the Philadelphia Inquirer is read regionally by those who want to access that geography’s largest and most influential newsroom.

The web rewards efficient scale. The majority of professional journalists now report for organizations without a geographic tie, according to Politico. Neither The Post and the Times does this as well as user-generated-powerhouses like Facebook but they’re building models that rely on the pedigree they maintain. They can command different advertising relationships.

The Inquirer, by contrast, has many of the same fixed costs as The Post and the Times but none of the opportunity to legitimately compete even mega-regionally, let alone globally, as web-based ad models demand. They’re stuck either blindly pursuing pageview growth in a battle they will never win (as leadership did, like almost all regional metro dailies, for most of the first decade of this century) or aiming to maximize the revenue per visitor metric beyond all sense of industry norm.

I’d argue there is a third option, but it’s quite inconvenient. I’d argue they need to entirely rethink why they’re valuable.

They may not use these terms, but, because of the newspaper’s origins, leadership may effectively think they are in the distribution business. The most effective business model tied to distribution is advertising. Newspapers perfected its analog expression and now data-powered tech platforms like Facebook and Google have revolutionized its digital use.

Newspapers are no longer valuable as distribution tools. Facebook and Google and their successors are far more effective at it. Newsrooms are extraordinary successes of capitalistic society, pursuers of free and frank dialogue are powerful trust and relationship builders via the creation of honest information. That’s why the Inquirer is still extraordinarily valuable, even if it isn’t as an advertising tool.

It needs an entirely new way to fund its work, which starts by solving a problem with journalism thinking. The Post and the Times took the road to compete globally. The web has left this narrow road quite wide. Those who are now geographically-bound must adapt to a new world—or die as an anachronism.

(Photo of globe by Kyle Glenn)