Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The ongoing tragedy of dying print media, the latest being community newspapers in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, Maryland

Staged photo of the band members of Belle and Sebastian, reading different UK newspapers.

Newspapers have been an essential element of an informed public and a check on government and business over-reach. I have always been interested in newspapers, reading them since I was 8 years old.

And as someone who studied political science, I have always been keyed into the importance of an informed citizenry and the connection between newspaper reading and civic involvement.

Recent coverage of the impact of the control of media in countries like Russia, where Vladimir Putin is wildly popular despite being a pariah politically outside of Russia, or how the majority of the British media lined up in favor of an austerity agenda and the party in power, demonizing the Labour Party in favor of the Conservative Party and its agenda in the recent elections in the UK ("Seriously Bad Ideas," New York Times) shows the importance of an independent media as a check on authoritarianism and manipulation.

From the article:
... In particular, one important factor in the recent Conservative election triumph was the way Britain’s news media told voters, again and again, that excessive government spending under Labour caused the financial crisis.

It takes almost no homework to show that this claim is absurd on multiple levels. For one thing, the financial crisis was global; did Gordon Brown’s alleged overspending cause the housing busts in Florida and Spain? For another, all these claims of irresponsibility involve rewriting history, because on the eve of crisis nobody thought Britain was being profligate: debt was low by historical standards and the deficit fairly small. Finally, Britain’s supposedly disastrous fiscal position has never worried the markets, which have remained happy to buy British bonds despite historically low yields.

Nonetheless, that’s the story, generally reported not as opinion but as fact. And the really bad news is that Britain’s leaders seem to believe their own propaganda.
Of course, as AJ Liebling said, "the power of the press belongs to the man who owns the press."

Even so, newspaper coverage of the NSA as a result of leaks published in the Guardian have put checks on surveillance by the US government.  And the Seattle Times' recent coverage of how a mobile home manufacturing and finance company owned by Berkshire Hathaway ("Warren Buffett") shows how people can be taken advantage of by business interests, who have the power to shape laws and regulators to their interests ("The mobile-home trap: How a Warren Buffett empire preys on the poor").

And as newspapers have been closing in response to a variety of economic conditions, academic researchers find negative impact on communities, as indicated in this journal article, "Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement," published in Political Communication:
Using data from the 2008 and 2009 Current Population Survey (CPS) conducted by the United States Census Bureau, this article assesses the year-over-year change in the civic engagement of citizens in America’s largest metropolitan areas. Of special interest are Denver and Seattle, where the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer closed during the intervening year. The data from the CPS indicate that civic engagement in Seattle and Denver dropped significantly from 2008 to 2009—a decline that is not consistently replicated over the same time period in other major American cities that did not lose a newspaper. The analysis suggests that this decline may plausibly be attributed to the ewspaper closures in Seattle and Denver. This short-term negative effect is concerning, and whether it lasts warrants future attention.
The slogan and logo on the masthead of Scripps Newspapers, which now has papers mostly in smaller markets, but at one time had papers in many big cities, including New York.

Media economics and an informed public.  If you pick up a media economics textbook, somewhere on the first page is a line something like this:

The business of media is to provide audiences to advertisers.

Providing news was a way to sell, package, and deliver advertising.  An unintended consequence is that it helped to produce a more informed and better society.

Producing "news" is an expensive proposition, requiring journalists, editors, page make up and layout people, as well as printing equipment and personnel, and a logistics and delivery system.  All in all, it requires a lot of time, people and money.

Woman with DC North (@Cafe Sureia) #1At the same time, the printed product is made available at a low or even free price, as it is "subsidized" by advertising.

And people got in the habit of paying very little for information.

But as the advertising dries up, because of the consolidation within the various business sectors that had generated advertising as well as the migration of ad products to the Internet, especially classified advertising--employment and goods sold by individuals, real estate, etc., were big categories--there's not enough advertising revenue to "subsidize" the high cost of producing and delivering news embodied in printed products.

So newspapers have been slimming down staffs and the size of the printed product (my joke about the Post is that compared to what it was 20 years ago, it's like it has cancer as it has wasted away).

Many newspapers have shut down.  In smaller markets, some newspapers have gone from 7 day publication to 3-4 days, or from daily to weekly or twice weekly.

Montgomery and Prince George's County to lose their major free weekly community newspapers.  The Post reports that the company is shutting down its suburban newspapers operation, either closing newspapers like the once-weekly Gazette with editions in Montgomery and Prince George's County Maryland, selling them off to managers, like the Fairfax County Times, or selling to traditional media companies, such as the company's papers in Southern Maryland.

Many metropolitan newspaper companies have developed an integrated set of complementary weekly papers distributed mostly in the suburbs, containing localized news and content not having a broad enough relevance to run in the "big paper," with advertising that is much better priced for local merchants.

(This took awhile to happen.  Heretofore, the metro paper was usually prevented from purchasing such newspapers out of concerns about monopoly, but as the Internet has wrecked print media, this previous prohibition was lifted.)

Such networks exist in St. Louis, Chicago (it's what kept the Sun-Times going economically as the main newspaper lost advertising and circulation, but they recently sold these papers to the Chicago Tribune), and Baltimore, among others.

But the Post's "suburban papers" were never integrated into the main platform of the big newspaper, they were bits and pieces that the Washington Post Company acquired over the years. As a result, the Gazette has been consigned to the ashbin--since the area they cover has about 2 million residents, you'd think they'd have been able to figure out how to make money at in.

This isn't a new process:  newspapers have been consolidating for decades.  Many cities have gone from having newspapers in the morning and evening to morning-only publication, and from multiple newspapers to one.  For example, in Washington, DC, there were two major papers, the Evening Star and the Washington Post.  The Star shut down in the late 1980s.

For years, the Star was the leading paper, but the Post trumped them first by buying and merging with the Times-Herald, and then later had the good fortune to be the newspaper published in the morning.

Reading newspapers on a Septa regional passenger trainReading on SEPTA regional rail.

This happened because it made the most sense for advertisers to run ads in only one paper, the paper that had the most readers.

Furthermore, newspapers published for reading in the late afternoon and evening lost out to tv news broadcasts and changes in commuting patterns--people stopped riding transit and started driving to and from work, which meant they didn't need something to read on the way home from work.

Unlike the Washington Post, Tribune doubles down on print media.  Interestingly, by contrast, Tribune Publishing is doubling down on the value of print media products in the newspaper markets they are in. For example, in Baltimore, at some point they purchased the "Times" newspaper group, publisher of weeklies in area counties but with a Baltimore City edition, and eventually these papers were merged into the main Baltimore Sun website.

More recently, they purchased the Annapolis Capital, the daily newspaper in Maryland's state capital, plus the Baltimore City Paper, the city's free alternative weekly.

The Chicago paper, as mentioned, bought the very big suburban newspaper network that had been owned by the Sun-Times. And in Los Angeles, while the Times hasn't been totally successful in creating some local weeklies, such as in Pasadena, they still have some, and in a big surprise, recently purchased the San Diego Union-Tribune, to create a "Southern California Newspapers Network."

Then again, Tribune Publishing isn't owned by a leading e-commerce company.

Special zoned news sections in major newspapers. Many metropolitan newspapers still publish zoned weekly sections. The Post does it--the Local Living section on Thursdays is the same across all the editions, with the exception of community events and other data listings, and two pages of local news--although these days, the DC edition often has Virginia-oriented stories.

The Boston Globe has Globe North, East, and West weekly sections for the areas outside of Boston--they dropped the Globe City section.

The Philadelphia Inquirer still publishes different Metropolitan news sections for New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but they dropped the special editorial page that once ran in each edition.  This page carried additional editorials and letters to the editor on local issues, with different pages for the city, suburbs, and New Jersey editions.

But over the past 10 years, many newspapers like the New York Times, Detroit News, and Louisville Courier-Journal, stopped publishing these kinds of special sections, because the revenues from local small business advertisers not running in the regular paper weren't enough to cover the costs.

Ending these sections further diminishes the amount of coverage of local affairs, especially concerning land use, schools, and hyper local government.

Community newspapers. Community newspapers play a vital role in carrying news that is of a more local and less general interest.  The metropolitan readers of the newspaper aren't likely to be interested in news about renovations at a particular school or a development project that doesn't have regional ramifications.

Most big cities have a big network of such newspapers, which in the past tended to be independent of the major media companies, and are published at the community-district-multi-neighborhood scale.

When I travel I always go out of my way to find and read these papers, to find out more about the place that I am in, things to do--reading some local paper in Astoria, Queens one weekend, we ended up taking one of the free rides on the new inaugural East River ferry service, etc.  But that's becoming much harder to do as many of these papers go out of business.

DC proper is fortunate to have the weekly Current Newspapers, serving much of the Northwest quadrant, and Capital Community News, which publishes three monthly newspapers for East of the River, Capitol Hill, and "Mid-City."

In Northern Virginia, the Connection Newspapers cover most of the jurisdictions, and until June 19th, the Gazette covered Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland. (There is also the Sentinel covering those two counties, but its design is so horrid I never bother trying to read it.)

Alternative weeklies.  Most cities still have alternative weeklies, which followed the example of the Village Voice, which was the first.

These papers too have lost much of their classified advertising, especially personals ads, which they relied upon for the bulk of their revenue.  As a result the industry has been roiled by financial problems, bankruptcies, etc.  And like their big paper cousins, they've gotten smaller and reduced staff and news holes.

Ethnic and special group papers.  You'd never know it now, but the US has a rich tradition of community newspapers specifically serving ethnic communities.  Many of these papers were published in foreign languages, serving new immigrant populations.  As people assimilated and learned English, many of these papers lost the bulk of their readership and eventually shut down.

Today, it's common to have Spanish-language newspapers in most major cities--and depending on the size of the population, some of these cities, like New York City, Miami, and Los Angeles, have daily Spanish-language newspapers.

With integration, African-American newspapers have declined significantly in circulation, but most major communities still have them.  With the fall off in reading print publications, it becomes harder to support and find these publications.  DC has many such papers, with the Washington Informer and the Washington Afro-American being the most significant.

In Brooklyn, the Daily Challenge serves the Caribbean-derived African-American community.  In the past, the Chicago Defender and Atlanta Daily World also published daily.

Korean newspaper vending racks at the Florida Market (300 block of Morse Street NE)And there are a couple of national daily newspapers for Koreans. The regional edition of the Korea Times used to be produced and printed a couple blocks away from my house, on Kansas Avenue NW.

Weekly newspapers focused on the LGBT population like the Washington Blade are another element of this category of publication.  And as the LGBT has become less constricted by social mores and geography, these newspapers too have lost circulation and advertising.

The Blade, owned by a gay newspaper publishing group, was for a time a casualty of these same trends.  It was shut down in a corporate bankruptcy but fortunately was revived by the writers and editors independently.

Other specialty print media.  Most major metropolitan areas have a number of monthly or seasonal publications focused on families/parenting, health, food, and recreation.

But these publications tend to not have a lot of coverage of land use and local government related matters.  For the most part, they aren't prodding government or their readers on social, civic, and political issues.

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At 10:15 AM, Anonymous Christopher said...

I feel like some of the lack of truly local media around DC is somewhat related to the political structures of the rural south which is really what the suburbans areas are/were. The lack of actual towns, especially ones dating to the late 19th and early 20th century, means there's little to know structural support for those information needs: community notices, real estate sales, tax notices. When I first moved to Virginia in the early 90s, I was surprised that friends from McLean didn't know what their local paper was. Of course as a child in Chicagoland, we got the Tribune, but we also got our local papers: The Geneva Republican and the Geneva Chronicle. Some other people got the Beacon-News (which was really Aurora's paper.) Even today in the Western Suburbs of Chicago their are at least 3 papers covering local news: the Trib (which bought the Beacon News), The Kane County Chronicle (the consolidated version of the various town Chronicles), the Daily Herald (an entirely suburban focused paper that I believe is now the 2nd largest circulating paper in Illinois), Suburban Life (which consolidated the Geneva Republican). Of course we also had regional sections for the Trib too back in the 1980s. As you point out, the consolidation began earlier, I think Suburban Life traces it's history to the 1950s when they started consolidating smaller papers. Especially remarkable to consider the number of papers when you realize my hometown only has 25,000 residents and used to only have 10,000. My father's hometown in Iowa is served by 2 papers. That's a population of like 4-5,000. Politically, unlike the rural south though, government was particularly local. The Northwest Territory act created at the very least townships with local elected leadership, and those townships often have small communities within them. That's a lot of political news and deeds and taxes and sales to record. The South just doesn't work like that. And politically DC and the surrounding area is the South.

At 11:58 AM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

Very good point. I guess another element isn't just the political structure, but also "the fact" that most of the area was rural until the postwar era, whereas the places you talk about in Suburban Chicago were not.

I didn't mention the Suburban Journal papers, which were daily county-based papers, not sure what they grew out of. But they died in the early 2000s. Gannett bought them for their printing plant and were forced to sell them off. The Examiner people bought them and relaunched the "Washington Examiner" as a metropolitan newspaper presumably for prestige and to be more focused on getting advertising from larger companies.

2. I didn't talk about a similar set of circumstances in Detroit. There were many different suburban newspaper groups, plus "dailies" but small in Oakland County (Royal Oak Tribune, Pontiac, later, Oakland Press) and Macomb County (Macomb Daily).

There were the Observer papers (Wayne County), Eccentric papers (Oakland County) which later merged, and Mellus Papers (I think they ended up with Gannett, as did papers in exurban parts of the metro area--Livingston and Washtenaw Counties). Not sure what was going on with Macomb--I never really lived there, but they have a suburban group of weeklies too.

O&E have been shrinking a lot over the years too. They dropped a bunch of markets a few years ago, including Troy, where I lived and read the paper...

At 1:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

it smore than trying to classify or pidgeonhole DC. It has to do with a decline in such things nationwide in bookstores and the art of the poster. As an artist I have seen the poster in its heyday here in DC when posters were literally everywhere and often considered a nuisance- and yet now none seem to exist at all. The jobs for visual artists have declined because of this problem. We are too willing to give up traditions here. In Europe the poster is still out there an d placed all over on stands and empty walls. It is wonderful and shows that people are alive and kicking. Another thing I totally hate- the complete disregard anymore for public clocks. You do not see public clocks anywhere anymore. This is disgusting.

At 2:14 PM, Anonymous Christopher said...

Anonymous: The poster seems to be still very big with the music community. I was at a poster show this weekend, all rock posters. Most of the friends that I know who do screen printing do it mostly for bands. There's a lot of illustration though, especially in the food segments. Here in Brooklyn an illustrator friend is doing a community-supported portraiture project. We have a pretty vital poster community in NYC (although you see a lot more "post no bills" signs than you used to.) Friends that are illustrators are mostly selling their own work or doing projects for food and clothing companies. There's been a resurgence in the zine culture as well. With big new zine fares. A lot of that is hand illustrated as well. Several art schools have re-established art book programs or design communications programs that incorporate both writing and design. Maybe not in DC. A general program with the fall of in the quality of the Corcoran as an institution with national standing is the loss of student work and professional outlets for working artists to teach. You really hamstrung to find sustaining work in the DC area without art education to provide that employment pathway.

At 2:16 PM, Anonymous Christopher said...

I should add that there's a lot of work being done around the future of digital distribution, however. The New School has a interdisciplinary program in journalism focused on the future of distribution. The US offices of the Guardian just opened an innovation lab with funding from the Knight Foundation in NYC as well. There are growing numbers of foundations looking at local news and news sources that are electronically delivered as well.

At 3:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you might be surprised at the local art institutions in DC proper- as for the Corcoran- its modernist oriented a-hole administration ran it into the ground. They gave money away to that hack Geary for plans and he took the money and they never built it. Again- DC has a lot more going on in the visual arts than most people NOT FROM HERE realize.

At 4:07 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

the one problem with posters is a place to put them up. One thing I need to put in my public space framework are community bulletin boards/kiosks, which is a place to put 'em.

2. There have been some interesting poster exhibits in other places, where e.g. to promote biking there is a contest.

I want to do one on streetcars wrt streetcars in DC.

I saw a couple cool printed SEPTA streetcars

3. at Atmosphere Printing on Frankford Ave. in Fishtown, Philly.

It was part of their first friday. They were very low key, just opened up, without much of a program.

they are printers, not really sellers of ephemera. But they had printed a couple posters for different people, which were on display as part of their work. I want to get copies.

The place is f*ing cool. It's artisanal printing, the first floor of their rowhouse is mostly printing equipment.

At 4:11 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I thought about adding stuff on digital community news sites, but the entry was already long enough, and technically, that was "off topic."

2. So about these nonprofit ventures. Personally, I think they have no legs. It's very expensive to support the development and delivery of quality news, even digitally. The cost of printing a paper isn't the most significant really, at smaller scales. It's the personnel getting and writing the stories.

Given how hard it is for PBS and NPR stations to fundraise, I don't see a good future for community digital news that way. Just one more competitor for fundraising, in a society that is increasingly a-literate (not interested in reading).

there is the MNPost. And a bunch of other very good sites around the country, e.g., Crosscut in Seattle.


There was that Dan Gillmor community news venture of some sort, don't know what happened to it.

3. and micro sites like Patch, again, don't have too much opportunity I think. By definition media economics-wise, they are too micro to generate much revenue, and they need to pay a few people (in theory) to gather and write the news.

At 8:46 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

@Christopher; I suspect in DC it was more the post-war push than regional factors.

The Byrd machine loved local newspapers. Henry Byrd owned them.His family still does. Great for court notices.

I suspect that prior to ww2 Alexandria and Falls Church were the only "cities" in what we know as NoVa.

As I've said elsewhere, the county level size of government is a real opportunity for efficiency. Multipe governments in a county might have made sense before easy transport, but we are lucky here that we are not burdened with that.

Tremendous market for local and hyper local news. Just hard to sell the ads.

At 3:43 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

and as various retail and service sectors chain up, fewer establishments to advertise.

... didn't know the Byrd family owned newspapers.

At 4:25 PM, Anonymous Christopher said...

Maybe because I'm from the midwest, but I've always felt the focus on county level government in the south takes away local control of decision making. It's the plantation mentality. Sure it's not as efficient but government probably shouldn't be that efficient. I know from when I studied urban government that the government efficiency people can't stand Northern Illinois and suburban Long Island what with all their villages and cities within townships and towns within counties. Plus separate school boards and park districts, but to me those are all opportunities for local leadership and control. Just shifting all that to the county level doesn't make much sense to me.

At 9:03 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Harry Byrd was not as bad as people say. Anti-urban? Well there was only one city of any size in Virginia. He and Elizabeth Warren would have lot to say -- not least in their transracial ancestry. Dan reed would have liked his focus on building walkable downtowns in small towns across the state.

@Christopher; I don't think the county-level was designed for efficiency, and also by efficiency I should say keeping employee counts down -- not in delivery of services.

But as our friend Larry in NYC likes to point out, we are in a slow moving pension crisis, and while you may like have 300+ local governments, it is the prime reasons Illinois is in a debt crisis. You'd need sales tax in the 15% range to support that level of workforce and retirees.

At 10:00 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

speaking of "efficiency" DC is at best the fourth largest school district in the metropolitan area, and at 4th, is less than half the student count of #3.

But the DCPS "Chancellor" makes more salary than any of the others...


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