Home > Journalism > For many, Clay Shirky’s doomsday scenario is already here
16 Mar

For many, Clay Shirky’s doomsday scenario is already here

Posted by 7 comments

NOTE: This piece is also running on OJR: The Online Journalism Review: “For many, the local newspaper isn’t dying – it’s already dead

The dooms day scenario has been on everyone’s mind, including some at SXSWi, since the revenue/circulation has dropped through the floor and the brilliant mind of Clay Shirky articulated “thinking the unthinkable.”

The scenario, in short, is what will happen to a city when the last major newspaper dies?

Who covers our city? Who becomes our watchdog? What happens to our community? Who tells our story?

I would propose that this scenario, in many aspects, has already happened.

NOTE: I’m not saying this to offend or be rude or for shock value or to make anyone feel guilty… I just felt that someone should state what seems obvious.

Okay, here goes: If you are white, and probably a male, you may not have noticed that we’ve been living in this doomsday scenario for years, if not decades.

For African Americans, Native Americans, Asian, Latino… or gays… or under 25… or female… they know that their communities have been, and continue to be, routinely left out of their newspaper. They typically make the news for holidays, crime or food.

For many of them, newspapers aren’t dying… they’re already dead.

At SXSWi, attendees of the Online News of Tomorrow session couldn’t help but notice that all the panelists were white males.

Look, here’s the reality. If your news gathering staff does not reflect the diversity of your community, then you made it nearly impossible for them to accurately cover that community. That’s the thinking behind NAHJ’s Parity Project.

Let me give you an example:

I worked at a small newspaper in a agricultural town that was predominately Mexican. I believe something like 80 percent. The staff was 95 percent white at the time… they knew the diversity of their community and did everything in their power to try to report/reflect it in their pages… this included hiring translators.

When I joined the staff for the summer, my “ability” to speak Spanish easily open doors that they often could not. And, to be less than modest, I think my stories beat the snot out of the competition by the simple fact I could relate to the community and do better reporting.

So, if the community doesn’t routinely see itself in the paper, why would they bother to read it, let alone buy it? For that community, again, newspapers aren’t dying… they’re already dead.

Think about this:

Let’s say the great Seattle paper and my former home, The Seattle Times, decides to reach out to the large Latino community. Many people know that diversity is highly valued at The Times.

Let’s say that for one day, to reach out to the Latino community, The Times publishes an all Spanish-language edition. Hell, let’s say five days.

In addition to pissing off its readers and getting a ton of canceled subscriptions, the experiment would be a total failure. Why? The Latino community would never know The Times was publishing in Spanish. The community already knows they haven’t been in the paper’s pages before the five days, and probably won’t be there after the five days.

To the Latino community, the largest city paper isn’t dying… it’s already dead to them.

So what does that mean? What has happened in this scary scenario?

The last time I visited a local taqueria in Seattle, I found about four Spanish-language newspapers chock full of ads. That’s not including the one mailed to me in a plastic sleeve.

The community didn’t wait for the newspaper to tell their stories or cover their struggles, they did it themselves. Throw in the Web, and you’ll see more coverage pop up.

Think about this:

The industry recently applauded Mission Loc@l, the hyper-local project by UC Berkeley, the Ford Foundation and other donors. In their mission statement they say they “believes that by covering a neighborhood fairly and thoroughly, we can build community and a sustainable model for quality journalism.”

Without a doubt, this is a innovative project and certainly worth supporting. But before we praise them for swooping in and covering this “ignored” community, let’s put it in some context.

For some 40 years, the Latino community in the Mission District has had its stories told, not by the San Francisco Chronicle, but by El Tecolote. The ethnic paper was there before the gentrification of the Mission and hopefully they survive to continue to tell their community’s stories. It’s even possible that they survive the Chronicle.

For many in our diverse community, the newspapers aren’t dying… they’re already dead. And while one can argue whether or not they are missed, it’s undeniable that the community has adapted on its own.


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  1. March 16th, 2010 at 09:10 | #1

    I’ll agree with you here, in part.

    I grew up Asian in a decent-sized Midwestern town. My family was actually featured in the newspaper after my parents reunited following the Vietnam War. But otherwise, did the paper ever cover the Asian community outside of Chinese New Year or other “ethnic” holidays? Not really.

    However, I did have the choice of reading a Vietnamese newspaper, Web site, etc. Do I read those? No.

    It’s a question of coverage. Do you cover minorities like they are something special? Outside of the norm? That’s the wrong kind of coverage. Do you cover them equally like they are everyone else? Their problems may be slightly different, but the difference is covering them as “minority” problems versus “human” problems.

    I once interned at a paper that required that any and every story have a diverse source in it. In Iowa, writing about farmers, we were required to call the a prominent black businessman who knew nothing about farming and get his opinion. Wrong kind of coverage.

    So I think of it this way, for some communities, the newspaper has to die, and rise again in a form that actually understands that we are part of the community, not a separate community.

    • March 16th, 2010 at 09:28 | #2

      @Kim My thoughts exactly! Um, was that paper owned by Gannett? Ugh.

  2. March 16th, 2010 at 09:24 | #3

    Your observation is on target. One of the reasons why I started my own site was because of frustration, and a Midwest newspaper editor telling me Latinos didn’t read. The Internet/blogosphere has finally equalized the playing field when it comes to today’s kind of journalism — inclusive, tells the “small stories” deemed uninteresting by msm and doesn’t always focus on sensational bleeding headlines.

    The real struggle, in my opinion, is to keep msm from dismissing niche news sites as not real journalism or not worthy of being seen/listed as a news source. The bottom line is that we niche news sites are providing a service to our communities that msm elected not to do in the name of their target audiences and major advertisers.

    • March 16th, 2010 at 09:31 | #4

      @Marisa I agree… that’s why I included the El Tecolote portion. There is a long history here and you can get a sample from the project Voices for Justice.

      What’s the URL of your site? How has the community reacted to the site?

  3. March 16th, 2010 at 10:17 | #5

    I think many of the white male leaders of the print journalism world who quoted and followed and applauded for their sage advice are completely unaware of the role of ethnic and other media in serving communities. I also think it’s so important for hyperlocal start-ups to rise up organically from the communities where they are. University J-Schools have tremendous human resources that can be brought to the table, but students don’t always live in the communities they cover and don’t have the kind of long-term connection needed to build trust and engagement.

  4. Pekka P
    March 16th, 2010 at 21:53 | #7

    This is good stuff, man! Write more!

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