Local Rules, or Should
August 2008

by Ron Steinman

It is not always possible to see changes even when they stare you in the face. For anyone who does notice, there is mounting evidence that newspapers, and, to a lesser extent, local TV newscasts are undergoing major changes, as each entity gets smaller. Fact is, the news hole is shrinking fast and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Therefore, the need for a big staff is lessening. This change is apparent to ownership and management but not always to the many journalists who find themselves out of work, including those who collect the news and the backroom people who sell advertising. These men and women can hardly be blamed for feeling abused and not appreciated as they lose their jobs in this increasingly often-desperate economic climate.

Tip O'Neill said it best: "All politics is local." Tip O'Neill, as everyone should know, was the consummate politician from Massachusetts who made things work in Washington in an often poisonous atmosphere. When he was Speaker of the House, the House of Representatives ran as well as anyone could hope for that usually ineffective body. News should take Tip's advice and quickly move to save itself. All news should be local if survival is the future for newspapers.

Foreign bureaus are mostly a thing of the past. Witness how few journalists are in Iraq and Afghanistan because the cost has become prohibitive to keep newsmen and women on the ground where they belong if we are to have the information we need to make the right decisions now and in the future.

What are we to do to stay an informed public, especially with foreign affairs a major component of our lives? Cynically, I must say, probably not much. However, we can and should rethink the purpose of newspapers and television as our primary sources of foreign news and even national news outside the immediate neighborhood of any newspaper.

Remember the good old days of network TV? When I was starting out and there were only three network newscasts on at dinnertime, I prided myself that I worked for the network, not the local station. In time from my base in New York I covered stories in Haiti, Guatemala, and Brazil. I worked on documentaries and special programs in Europe, especially in London and Paris and Geneva. Today, unless it is a major story, that is almost impossible. NBC, as did CBS and to a lesser degree, ABC, had working news bureaus in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Bonn, Tel Aviv, Cairo, and separate NBC News roving reporters covering Africa and Latin America. There were bureaus in Saigon, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul and even Singapore. Now TV news has drastically cut back on its overseas presence, and, except for ABC, and its new creation of producer/reporters throughout the world, television news bureaus are almost nonexistent outside the United States.

Newspapers and magazines, what I often refer to as print, also had many bureaus around the world, but because needs were different, the bureaus were smaller and less costly than those for TV. Most of those are also gone.

Coverage of foreign news is more than sufficient when warranted. Name it -- earthquakes, typhoons, assassinations do get the coverage these stories deserve. For major stories that require the newspaper's or a TV network's touch, reporters, photojournalists using stills and video and TV camera crews can be parachuted onto the scene of that major story and when done, extracted with relative ease. Witness the recent overseas trip of Senator Barack Obama as he fills in his résumé on foreign affairs. This kind of coverage is the exception. After all, everyone believes this is a crucial election year. I believe, though, that most readers and viewers do not know or care where important overseas news comes from as long as the news is accurate.

Repeating the theme from Tip O'Neill, if all politics is local, then all news should be local. Newspapers, and TV to a lesser extent, should become local forces in the community. They should devote all their time, money and energy to those problems and events that affect life as lived by the people in the area they serve. Forget foreign bureaus. Forget any coverage that takes a reporter or photographer out of his or her immediate neighborhood even if it is a major story elsewhere in the United States. Washington, D.C., might be the only exception, but good reporting by a reliable syndicate would work in most cases, unless it becomes a bigger story than the syndicate has time to cover.

Local TV stations must realize that it just doesn't work for them to cover breaking news in other locations. Audiences in the cities where the station reside deserve better, more detailed and smarter coverage of local problems than simply covering fires and crime. It is time these stations started covering those issues that affect the lives of the citizens they should serve. Cover city hall. Cover poverty. Cover science and the arts as part of community life. That will save money and time and the additional space usually devoted to news from elsewhere, whether in other parts of the country or from foreign shores. At this writing, almost all local TV stations are failures when it comes to informing their audience of the real issues that affect their lives. It is time that changed.

For newspapers, news from outside its area can easily fit into a box inside the first few pages or if the story is big enough, editors can easily pick it up from any number of world syndicates. Many newspapers already do this. Let those sources do the work of reporting news in words and pictures from elsewhere. Simply put, local news is not as exciting as covering news in other parts of the world. Local news is not as exciting as covering national politics, though politics is usually dull compared to this year's campaign between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Face it -- most political coverage is akin to watching the grass grow. If presented well, local news should engender local advertising. Local advertising can and should pay the bills. Yes, the staff on the newspaper will be smaller, but then small may be beautiful in the right environment.

Take a look at the direction of your "local" newspapers and you might recognize that the localization of news is already in play. Mostly it is by default and not on purpose. Survival requires intent. Until that day dawns, we will bemoan the loss of what once was and wring our hands and beat our heads until they are drained of all good sense. Newspapers, and to a lesser extent, TV news can survive, but it will take work and a decided change in philosophy and attitude about what the news business is and is not.

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© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.