American Media is going local

Portland New York’s Maria Pacheco examines the localism agenda in American media

Localism has long been a critical feature of American media. Before the invention of the radio, the vastness of the country meant that American media was dominated by local papers and local news. It was not until the radio allowed news to be broadcast across the country in an efficient and timely way that national news became dominated by national networks and newspapers. Now, the advent of new technology, changing business models and the dominance of content has led to a new trend towards localism in American media.

Throughout the 20th Century, three American newspapers became the dominant forces in both influence and market power. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today have survived the trend towards consolidation, through a variety of business models and strategies, to emerge as national papers each with a a distinct”mandate” about the type of news they cover.

For years it was regional papers that drove the news agenda in their towns and cities. Papers like the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Miami Herald not only dominated their regions but often punched above their weight with hard-hitting and breaking national news.  Regulations preventing ownership of media across platforms ensured some diversity in the marketplace. This local media combined local news with selected stories from the nationals and the wires to provide a tailored package for their regional audiences.

From 1996, this landscape of regional media changed dramatically with the Telecommunications Act that aimed to deregulate the airwaves. The purpose was to improve competition in the marketplace by removing government regulation. The purpose was to lead to a wave of consolidation of media ownership, allowing businesses to become national players and for radio, TV and print to be dominated by a small number of businesses. The trend for national media was growing again.

With the recession and new technology, a new shift towards local content is prevalent again. The collapse of the advertising market for local newspapers and the prevalence of new media has meant that local newspapers are having to shutter their offices, leaving fewer and fewer regional players in the news media. But rather than simply have these local stories go unreported, the nationals have found new opportunities unlocked by the web, which allows them to deliver local content to readers from around the world.

This has set the stage for a reverse push, with national newspapers seeking to expand their markets and reach new readers by bridging the national with a bit of local, instead of the other way around. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post, which may arguably be called the US’s “online national”, have all rolled out special local editions or sections across major cities. Even local sports coverage, one of the last strongholds of the local news, faces competition. In 2009-2010, launched regional websites in cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago, some of which quickly became the #1 local sports websites in their regions.

One of the major drivers behind this push might be trying to scoop up more advertising dollars, but it also reflects the personalisation of content and need for innovation induced by the advent of online media.  Nationals are going local not just out of opportunity but out of necessity.  At the same time that the nationals are trying to pick up new readers by offering local content, they are trying to hold on to long-time readers who might be pulled away to blogs that cater to their particular regional interest or ideological leaning.  And with an ever-increasing number of options from which readers can gather their news, newspapers are casting their net wide to become the purveyor for as much of the news as possible.

This is not to suggest that these local sections are a like-for-like replacement for your local paper. The “little bit of local” in the nationals tend towards the big-picture stories rather than very specific happenings or local reporting, with headlines in nationals’ local sections such as “Poll shows widespread support for civil unions in Colorado” and features about philanthropists working for the greater good. They appeal to readers with a more global outlook than provincial mindset. The local sections of the nationals offer a valuable opportunity for businesses and organisations to target influential local leaders across the US, rather than only those based in New York City or DC.  Ex-residents of a city who still have a keen interest in its activities are more likely to click on the “San Francisco Bay Area News” tab on the Wall Street Journal’s website than sort out how to mail a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle to their home.

When selling in globally-focused stories to US papers, it has always been necessary to “nationalise” the issue for American audiences, more so than one would need to do in the UK.  Now, by making the issue hyper-local (a favourite new industry buzz word), organisations will be able to reach new types of influencers, and by encouraging high-quality local content generation, newspapers might be able to stay one step ahead of the blogosphere.

Though local newspapers may not see it this way, by encouraging innovation and bringing the capabilities and brand of a national paper to local news, the nationals going local might be just the thing to put a bit of bounce back into the newspaper industry.

Maria Pacheco is a Senior Consultant in Portland’s New York office.