Local outlets remain stable in downturn

The Tribune Co.'s December 8 decision to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to restructure about $13 billion of debt is the latest blow to a media industry pained by financial strain and poor advertising revenues.

The Tribune Co.'s December 8 decision to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to restructure about $13 billion of debt is the latest blow to a media industry pained by financial strain and poor advertising revenues. Yet, some types of local media outlets, such as weekly newspapers and community-focused news networks, have a buffer against the troubles experienced by big media organizations, like the parent of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.

“Most people are getting national news off CNN, MSNBC, the three networks, [etc],” says Brian Steffens, executive director of the National Newspaper Association (NNA), a group representing community newspapers nationwide. “The local weekly paper that covers local news is still a viable tool.”

According to an NNA survey conducted in August and September by the University of Missouri School of Journalism, 86% of adults read a local community paper each week. Steffens adds that much of large newspapers' troubles began when they grew alongside their beats, increasing coverage and costs of doing business in the process.

“They became regional hubs and felt they had to be all things to all people, [with] foreign, national, and statehouse bureaus,” he says. “That gets to be expensive.”

The imperative to go online is felt more by city-centric media outlets, with a “population that is mobile” and equipped with broadband, according to Steffens, who adds that local newspapers must also make the move to the Web to reclaim coverage that, for weekly papers in particular, was lost to broadcast outlets able to cover events with more immediacy. This development is rife with obstacles.

“[These are] small staffs not necessarily trained in digital media,” he says. “But it actually presents opportunities they gave up years ago.”

Local broadcast outlets, of which the Tribune Co. is the owner of 23, are also turning their eyes toward the Web. Adam Symson, VP of interactive for the television division at EW Scripps, says his division has invested in a “multi-platform approach,” which integrates the Web to draw visitors and advertisers.

“We're trying to get them from one platform to the Internet, but also trying to build new audiences on the Internet, acknowledging that we have a new generation of people that have different habits from previous generations,” he says, adding that it's important to cater to new viewers who surf the news online all day and don't watch a broadcast at an appointed time.

“Now when you go to our sites, you're looking at the live version of what's going on in each of our communities,” he says. “There's more information online than could be in a program. Today, there is more local news available than ever before.”

Among local broadcasters, those on cable are largely removed from the impact of the global downturn.

“I don't want to say we're immune, but it doesn't hurt to be part of a cable company versus a traditional news organization with advertisers,” says Steve Paulus, regional VP and GM of Time Warner Cable's local news division, which includes the NY1 network. He adds that the company hopes to launch a local news channel in Buffalo at the end of the next quarter. “Our value [is] as an asset to the cable company, an exclusive offering.”

Even for an organization with a wide reach, the value of local news will remain, even during rough economic periods, Paulus adds.

“Local news is crucial and totally vital for our viewers,” he says. “There will never be a situation when local news is irrelevant.”

A Tribune Co. representative did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

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