The New York Times tries local news, far away

September 30, 2009

If you read often enough about the supposed death of the newspaper business, you would think that the nation’s newsrooms are increasingly depopulated, barren places, with darkened offices and empty cubicles… the occasional tumbleweed blowing past. (Actually,  large stretches of Tribune Co’s New York bureau look just like that, as I saw earlier this year).

In San Francisco, Chicago and other metropolitan centers, you would be wrong. It’s true that both cities bear unfortunate marks of how rough the advertising decline, rise of the Internet and financial crisis have treated their news operations: Hearst was toying with shutting down the San Francisco Chronicle, and Chicago’s leading daily papers, the Tribune and the Sun-Times, are owned by bankrupt companies. Improbably enough, both are turning into hot spots for local news competition.

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are fighting over San Francisco, and a private equity guy has teamed up with KQED and UC Berkeley to try a nonprofit local news experiment. And now, the Times reported on Wednesday, it is targeting some other cities, including Chicago. Here is an excerpt from reporter Richard Perez-Pena’s writeup on the Times’s decoder blog:

Plans for the San Francisco edition call for adding to the paper, twice a week, two additional pages of news about northern California. At first, the added content will be produced by The Times’ own writers and editors. But eventually, the plan, as in Chicago, is to turn the production over to a local partner.

Here’s more from spokeswoman Diane McNulty, whose statement also was in the Times’s blog:

We’re in conversations with potential news providers in Chicago about adding local content to The Times. Our intent is to roll out these expanded reports in several key markets around the country with Chicago following San Francisco. The details are still being discussed. The idea is to provide additional quality local content for our readers.

Papers like the Times and Journal are trying lots of things that they hope will stem their own ad declines and keep them profitable as they face the threat of a severely diminished future. The idea is to capitalize on the problems that local papers are having by scooping up their readers and giving them a comprehensive national report along with local news. But it’s hard to see where the cost savings will come from in this Chicago case unless they find a local partner to print their papers.

Revenue-wise, perhaps any circulation bump is a good one when it comes to getting more advertising. In terms of fixing what else is wrong with the newspaper business these days, however, it doesn’t look like a game changer. The reason that so many people tout local news as a more healthy media pursuit than national is because local publishers know local audiences and advertisers the best and presumably can give them something that few others can give them. To do that, it’s good to remember that it’s LOCAL publishers who tend to enjoy that advantage.

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