The meaning of local

Martin Moore reflects on what “local” means when we’re talking about news media, concluding that if new start-ups replace the news organisations of the past they will have be grown from ground-level communities. Carving out a piece of territory, sending news to it and then hoping that you create a community as a result doesn’t work.

Everything in that post makes sense and I’d just add this perspective. Present-day local news media may look like businesses aiming at slices of physical territory or at selected “demographics”. But that isn’t how most local news began life. A community already existed and wanted to improve its common life: knowing things quicker, knowing where to shop for stuff, the tide tables or the football team’s score.

In the 19th century, the great growth era of local papers, cities were forging new identities and creating new bonds with new civic institutions whose doings made material for editors and publishers whose ambitions went beyond the parish. Cities in the 21st century, for dozens of reasons, aren’t the same places as they were then. The era when papers could be the romantic chroniclers of new urban life has gone. (For a taste of this in an American context see this Q&A with the writer Richard Rodriguez about San Francisco).

Town and cities made economic sense as well. Any city of 100,000 inhabitants or more could sustain an evening paper and usually did so for more than a century. Not any longer. Classified ads for houses, jobs and cars – once the bread and butter income for regional papers – moved faster than any advertising to the internet.

So in a world in which online startups must try to fill the gaps left by collapsing papers, the definition of “local” is up for grabs. Is it a village? A street? A small town? A city block? A community may not be made by geography alone: the people who have common interests may be brought together by a wish to reform or preserve to change.

Modern media companies often put the cart before the horse, defining and targeting a community which looks as if it will sustain a business. That may work in some kinds of business but it won’t work in local journalism. A community grows. At some stage, its members will want to express themselves, organise their collective intelligence and to bind themselves closer. That is what creates local media which do useful work and which last.

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