Here in Los Angeles, one of the most common media laments is about how poorly the LA Times covers local news. Matt Yglesias, writing from the other end of the country, wonders if this is inevitable:
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?
My sense of local news isn’t that great, but it’s always been a little bit different than this. The fact is that most communities have a pretty hard core of activists who do go to planning board meetings and city council meetings and so forth. And 99% of the time, they just do their thing and the local paper does no more than print short blurbs about what’s going on. And the rest of us ignore it.
But every once in a while, something becomes a big deal. Not because the Times or the Post does or doesn’t have a reporter at a board meeting, but because the activists suddenly start screaming louder and the community gets up in arms about something. Then the local press starts to pay attention.
In other words, it doesn’t matter that much if the local paper reports assiduously on local zoning board meetings. What matters is that the community itself has some minimum level of activist organization and that the local press still exists and can pick up a story when it gets hot. Unfortunately, the local press can’t do even that much if there’s no more local press. That’s why they matter.