Technology PR and marketing consultant and blogger Renee Blodgett still dreams about newspapers, and has written an essay about their role -- in England, at least -- in defining social class and community and meeting other needs: Down the avenue: Who Shot the Paperboy?
Her column, in turn, inspired Chris O'Brien to write a piece encouraging news organizations to focus on local community via the Web and somehow reinvent enough of a local marketplace to support multi-platform professional newsrooms, "as part of local news ecosystem": How Passion for Newspapers Points to a Way Forward.
Since I taught a media history class last semester, those two blog items reminded me of something Archive.org has preserved online. For a look at newspaper audience dedication the Web -- and before TV -- see what happened when New York delivery drivers went on strike 54 years ago:
Internet Archive: 17 Days: The Story of Newspaper History in the Making.
Do watch it... You'll be struck (no pun intended) by not only how many people were willing to line up around the block for a paper during the truckers' strike, but how many papers there were, each with its dedicated audience, much like the London scene Renee describes. That strike, during the last summer of World War II, inspired some serious studies of the audience view of a newspaper's varied "uses and gratifications" -- most of which are met by many different media today.
The 1945 model was still good and strong 20 or so years later when I delivered the Daily Hampshire Gazette around the edges of the Smith College campus. Now I live in an even smaller college town, where the local twice-weekly paper has dropped its price to 25 cents and its reporting staff appears to be one person. The bigger regional paper doesn't seem to give any reporter time to get to know the community. (There have been four in the two years I've lived here.)
Historically, what has been important to readers? Using the headline examples from Renee's London paper for examples, even the 1945 New York crowd was interested in news-you-can-use like "Quest for the perfect bottom," and in being entertained by crime-story sensationalism like "Bright City Star in Death Plunge." Those probably were all higher on the audience agenda than investigative reporting or watchdog coverage of government and big business. So were the "hatched, matched and dispatched" stuff of community (births, weddings, obituaries), the local police blotter and court coverage, along with local help-wanted ads, apt-to-let ads and car-for-sale ads.
Putting that all in one dead-tree package with national and world news sold papers, and it sold local display ads, enough to pay the salaries of a large enough staff to do more civic-minded, public-service investigation, fact-gathering and reporting -- if the publisher was so inclined.
We still have all the pieces... some being taken by blogs, TV (online or off), CraigsList, Amazon, Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter... but figuring out where to put the rest, and how to pay for it, is quite a puzzle, especially on a local and regional level.
NPR is often mentioned as a model of non-profit funding that might be adapted by local news websites and citizen journalism projects. (The New Haven Independent is still my favorite.) It will be interesting to see what NPR itself accomplishes with its new www.localnewsinitiative.org