After the Newspaper

As urban dailies die, a search for other sources of local information


The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has survived labor trouble, legal trouble, and a name that suggests some sort of head trauma, but it couldn't survive the combination of Craigslist and the recession. On March 17 the paper printed its final paper edition, telling readers it would continue only as a website manned by a skeleton crew. Less than three weeks earlier, the E.W. Scripps Company shuttered another newspaper, the Denver Rocky Mountain News. Last year the Tribune Company—owner of the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and the Baltimore Sun, among other outlets—had to go to bankruptcy court. Papers around the country are shedding staff, reducing copy, and veering close to oblivion.

There was a time when the death of the newspaper was a speculative debate, an argument between Internet visionaries and defenders of newsprint tradition. Back then the issue was whether the papers ought to be supplanted. In 2009, that's a bit like debating yesterday's weather. The papers are being supplanted, whether they deserve it or not, and the issue is—or should be—how we still might fill the functions the old media can no longer perform.

The Harvard legal scholar Yochai Benkler, author of the 2006 book The Wealth of Networks, took a stab at that question this month in The New Republic. We're moving, he wrote, "from an industrial model—be it the monopoly city paper, IBM in its monopoly heyday, or Microsoft, or Britannica—to a networked model that integrates a wider range of practices into the production system: market and nonmarket, large scale and small, for profit and nonprofit, organized and individual." His examples of the emerging order ranged from small-scale noncommercial enterprises such as The Washington Independent to the new "volunteer-driven party press" represented by websites like the Daily Kos and RedState. The new model, he argued, offers "an effective mix of reporting and opinion."

Then Benkler's confidence faltered, as he admitted that "we do not have good research to know whether this system is also working for local politics and potential corruption as well." And that's what those papers that are closing their doors added to the mix: coverage of local topics, from crime to corruption to construction. It wasn't always good coverage, but indifferent attention is better than no attention at all. Writing in the Washington Post last month, David Simon—formerly a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, more recently a writer-producer for the TV dramas The Wire and Generation Kill—described a recent example of police deceit that had eluded notice at The Sun, one that left him putting on his old hat and chasing down the story himself. "So-called citizen journalists and bloggers and media pundits have lined up to tell us that newspapers are dying but that the news business will endure, that this moment is less tragic than it is transformational," he concluded. "Well, sorry, but I didn't trip over any blogger trying to find out [the errant officer]'s identity and performance history. Nor were any citizen journalists at the City Council hearing in January when police officials inflated the nature and severity of the threats against officers. And there wasn't anyone working sources in the police department to counterbalance all of the spin or omission."

There's the question—not a rhetorical question about what ought to be, but an empirical question about what's possible. The Internet is great at aggregating and sorting information, but it isn't always obvious where that information will come from. If newspapers are drying up into husks, who else can dig up the dope that papers used to provide? When the Web guru Clay Shirky surveyed the state of the daily newspaper, he wrote that revolutions are what happen when "the old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place." But new stuff doesn't come from nowhere. The rudiments are out there already. In many cases, reporters already rely on them.

So here's an early and incomplete catalog of places to look for local data as once-mighty papers fade away. Each reader can decide for herself if the list is more hopeful or dispiriting.

The gadflies. One of the core duties of a newspaper is, in Shirky's words, "the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case." In many, maybe most, municipalities, there already is a character who sits through those council meetings, or the school board meetings, or even, if he's eccentric enough, the public meetings of the Department of Public Works. He's a fellow, probably retired, with a lot of time on his hands and a lot of opinions about the way things ought to be.

No truthful list of local sources can exclude this guy. When he isn't watching lawmakers, he's on the phone with reporters, urging them to cover some story that eluded their attention. Sometimes they blow him off. Sometimes they follow up and conclude that they should have blown him off. And sometimes they follow up and find a great scoop.

Different towns have different gadflies. The best ones are whip-smart watchdogs who know more about how the government works than most public employees do. The worst ones are, to put it kindly, completely batshit insane. In other words, they have the same range of intelligence and talent you'll already find in the blogosphere. They should fit right in.

The activists. It isn't just solitary fanatics who keep an eye on their local bureaucracies. Environmentalists and their foes pore through regulatory reports. Pressure groups of all kinds keep tabs on planners and zoners. And when activists aren't paying attention, there's usually a cadre of advocates nearby who ought to be paying attention. Think of David Simon's lonely search for someone to keep an eye on the Baltimore police bureaucracy. If The Sun won't do that work anymore, perhaps it's time the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union stepped up.

Like the independent gadfly, these organized gadflies often uncover the stories that eventually make their way into the morning newspaper. The activist calls the reporter; she checks out the story, gets other points of view, and turns it into a narrative; the paper prints it. In the new media, the process of vetting claims, finding opposing perspectives, and seeing what storylines emerge is a public process conducted by many people rather than a private process conducted by a handful of professional writers and editors. But the act of digging out the initial information and inserting it into a larger conversation can still be done.

The insiders. It's also possible to get information directly from the interested institutions. The EveryBlock website, a fascinating online experiment, offers "microlocal" coverage of individual city blocks: Users in 37 cities can enter their address or zip code and see all the locally specific coverage the site can gather. That means links to articles in the conventional media, but it also means direct access to building permits, restaurant inspections, and crime reports. Not content to conduct this experiment by itself, the site has now opened its publishing system's source code, allowing tinkerers in other cities to develop their own versions of the service.

Then there's information that institutions would rather not share. We already have one way for whistleblowers to release sensitive information without the intercession of the traditional press: Wikileaks, a website that allows anonymous insiders around the world to post secret documents, and which has already broken stories ranging from the membership and contact list of the racist British National Party to the operating procedures of the prison at Guantanamo Bay. It's not hard to imagine local equivalents appearing in the future, though it'll take a while to figure out the best approaches to vetting the documents such sites receive.

The neighbors. Every community has its own channels of information, though these are often invisible to outsiders. The most ancient are the gossip networks—in Stephen Ellis' poetic phrase, the "pavement radio"—that transmit rumors from one backyard or bar to another. But there are more reliable species of ultra-local media as well: A few nondescript blocks can conceal a rich ecology of newsletters and listservs. I've lived in two Baltimore neighborhoods, one in the city proper and one just outside the urban boundary in Towson. In both cases I learned almost immediately about every substantial local crime that had been reported to the cops—not by reading the police blotter, but by checking my email. Through the same lists, we were kept abreast of subjects involving everything from upcoming block parties to an effort to build a community swimming pool. And if we needed anything from a babysitter to a handyman, the lists were an instant source of informed advice.

Neighborhoods have their share of activists too. In South Baltimore, anyone interested in zoning and planning could become painfully well-informed simply by walking a few blocks to a monthly meeting in a small church basement, where he'd be tutored by the sorts of people who care very deeply about the number of floors in the house next door. I never heard any of those people—or the people who launched the citizen crime patrols, or the people who organized the weekly park clean-ups, or the people who agitated for and against a new parking system—complain that they weren't learning enough from The Sun. I did sometimes hear it said that The Sun wasn't listening enough to them.

There are papers that are trying to draw this amateur expertise into their pages. Some of those projects have had some successes, but there's a top-down quality to the experiments that limits them. A few years ago, The Washington Post wrote excitedly about the Gannett chain's attempts "to involve readers in news-gathering" and draw "on specific expertise that many journalists do not have." It's a fine idea and I wish them well, but the article's grand example, in which "retired engineers, accountants and other experts [were] solicited to examine documents and determine why it cost so much to connect new homes to water and sewer lines," doesn't sound all that different from the age-old journalistic practice known as "finding good sources."

The real challenge, particularly as papers either cut back or go out of business altogether, is to tap the information already flowing from citizen to citizen without any journalist's intervention. Then you can help it flow farther.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).