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Is Anyone Reading the News?

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Is Anyone Reading the News?"

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This remark, from David Simon as reported by Adam Serwer, seems to me to have the correct focus for fretting about the future of journalism: “The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day I will no longer be worried about journalism.” Serwer comments:

Even if newspapers were to be profitable again, there’s no indication they’d invest in the kind of journalism they’re now using to convince everyone how valuable they are, and it isn’t the choice of the dedicated reporters and editors who staff them. It’s up to the people who own the paper, and they’re worried about the bottom line.

But it’s not just up to owners, it’s also the case that readers seem to have a limited level of interest in this sort of thing. Most people I know are pretty ill-informed about local issues in Washington, DC. And while it’s true that the coverage of local issues in DC offered by The Washington Post is not all it could be, the fact of the matter is that most people don’t even know what you could be learning by reading the Post. Not only is it going to be intrinsically difficult to ever find a viable revenue model for paying a reporter to cover the zoning board if people don’t want to read about the zoning board, I’m not actually sure how much social value is created by unread articles about zoning boards. If an article about proposed modifications to the Purple Line falls in the wilderness and nobody’s there to read it, are we really making a difference?

Meanwhile, on another level I think locally oriented bloggers are already doing an okay job of filling this particular information niche. The author of the MV Triangle blog in my neighborhood is, in fact, going to the Downtown Neighborhood Association meeting and the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association meeting, the local Advisory Neighborhood Committee meeting, etc. This is a lot more fine-grained local coverage than you’re going to find in the post. And he’s not the only good neighborhood blogger you can find in DC. And none of them are making any money off of this—they do it because they like to, or because they think it’s important. And, indeed, they can offer more fine-grained local coverage than the Post precisely because they clearly aren’t going to earn a living by doing so, which frees them to just do the coverage and not worry about the revenue model.

But this still gets back to the fact that good coverage of local issues is of limited value unless people care to read it. And even though I’m pretty optimistic, in general, about the future of coverage of both national and local issues, I have a very hard time seeing what dynamic is going to prevent state government from slipping under an even greater veil of obscurity.

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