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Recently, there was a healthy discussion on Poynter’s Online-News email list on the topic of the importance of local news. So I decided to put the question to MediaShift readers as well: Should traditional media outlets start focusing more on local news and leave the national and international stories to other outlets? How far should they go?

Before I get into your excellent answers to this question, I first want to quote Rob “Roblimo” Miller from the Online-News list. Miller is editor in chief of Linux.com, and says that he doesn’t need focus groups to know what his readers want; he goes to conferences and is in touch with readers all the time, living in their community. Even though he’s talking about the open source software community, it offers a nice parallel for how a local news reporter might mingle in his/her community as well.

“[Geographical communities are] an underserved online niche, because they have been dominated by ‘us to you,’ top-down newspapers and TV/cable news operations,” MIller said. “But it can and should be one of the most valuable niches of all. The local mall should be supporting local news/info sites like mad, because it draws its business from the area around it, not from all over the world.”

Many MediaShift commenters pointed out the importance of local news, whether it’s in small town newspapers or in local business journals. “Focusing on local news is the only way for smaller papers to compete and differentiate themselves from the larger papers like the NY Times,” wrote Binh Ngo, who writes the End of Boredom blog.

The blogger known as Simple Country Physicist builds on that theme with his experience in North Alabama:

Increasingly the only uniqueness and relevancy that traditional media can offer is the local stuff. This is more obvious perhaps in the Heartland than in Metropolois. In a town of 6,000, I observe a thriving — relatively — local published twice-weekly, but flagging subscriptions to the dailies from the cities to north and south for whom the small towns are largely nonexistent. Increasingly the big dailies have little to offer [that’s] not more easily available on the web.

One anonymous commenter noted how the timeliness of the Internet makes daily newspapers in print look a day late on their stories:

What news organizations need to do is realize that they have to be more immediate and local. It is not enough to post stories a day later. Coverage has to be as immediate as possible and then remain available. A city council meeting can be streamed live and the journalist can help to highlight the key portions. There are no more broadcast journalists and print journalists, there are only digital journalists who know their area of expertise and their community.

The key combination here is timely and local. When local news outlets stray too much from that mantra, they get lost.

Age and Digital Divide

But in the push for local, are some media outlets going too far in figuring that people can get their national and international news elsewhere? On the Online-News list, University of North Carolina journalism professor Phil Meyer noted that editors tend to go overboard on local news over national news:

There is a pretty good history of survey research suggesting that editors tend to overestimate the importance of local news. They like it because its coverage is under their control. But when survey respondents tell them they want a good national and international report, editors tend not to believe them. I have done a couple of studies — going back to 1980 (which was a different universe) — comparing street sales to page-one content. National and international stories were better for street sales. My theory: Editors liked local so much that they would bump a good national story off page one to make room for an inferior local piece.

Local is cheap to produce if you limit yourself to stenographic coverage of public meetings. But to really cover local news, you need talented, specialized reporters who are free to dig for weeks on a single topic.

Some MediaShift readers said they still wanted to see national and international items, even if they don’t have as much depth. “In our Daily Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, SD, I would love to see more shorter national and international news stories and less of the lengthy local stories, re: the USA Today format,” wrote Doug Johnson.

Charles Roberts says this isn’t a problem of local vs. national vs. international, but a problem of less news of every variety in traditional media outlets.

“There is increasingly less local news and less international news in newspapers,” Roberts wrote. “Both newspapers and television networks employ fewer and fewer persons to report on the news, and, except for garbage about celebrities, the nation has become less and less informed about everything…When was that last time that you heard or read anything about, for example, the dispute between Russia and The Ukraine? Our nation is not well-served by any of the typical ‘news’ sources. Certainly local news is important, national news is important, and international news is important. Why should one have to choose?”

Indeed. Karen Howell also wasn’t ready to lose national news in print. “I would love to see more local news but I’m old enough that I don’t want to go dig the national and international stuff off the web,” she wrote. “So give me local news and put the wider coverage in there too — or tell me the link where I can get it.” Perhaps there’s still a place for journalists in filtering all the national and international news for their local audience?

Of course, there’s also the issue of the digital divide. If we put just the local news in print and then expect the populace to find national and international news online, what about people who can’t afford to go online at all hours?

“The grand assumption behind this is that everyone’s reading their news on the Internet,” wrote Mike Ho. “Certainly MediaShift readers are. But not everyone is, and here’s where it gets hairy. The Internet-connected community, while getting larger, still excludes large swaths of the population based both on age and socio-economic status. If local papers skimp on national news because ‘everyone’s getting it online,’ they’re forgetting that not everyone is online, not even in the net-savvy San Francisco Bay Area, the readership for the example you cite.”

Of course, they can still get national and international news on TV, though they would need a cable subscription to see the 24-hour news channels. But Ho’s point is relevant here, and needs to be considered as local news outlets weigh how their mix might change of local and non-local news.

Roy Clark is the Poynter Institute’s vice president and senior scholar, and pens the Writing Tools blog. Clark noted that each new technology, from the telegraph to the Internet, has taken us out of our physical communities as we get more news from abroad. Here’s part of what he wrote on the Online-News list:

Each [new technology], I might argue, has, in some form, weakened the bonds between citizens and the places where they sleep.

This was brought home to me last week when an electrical short threatened a house down the block late one night, bringing six fire trucks to the rescue. Folks who rarely gather or know each others’ names were out in the street in our jimmies chatting and making sure everyone was safe. When there was a murder around the corner, never solved, neighbors got together to talk about the value of security systems. We are diurnal creatures. We have to sleep somewhere.

What do you think? Should traditional news outlets focus more on local news, and how should they balance the need for their communities to learn more about local happenings vs. national and international news? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of newspaper by Lance Nishihira via Flickr.