They should be so dumb

Jack Shafer at Slate says that the growth of the national edition of the New York Times is shrinking and dumbing down local papers. He launches off from this study (pdf) to declare in his headline: “How the New York Times Makes Local Papers Dumber,” and then to confess: “A brief note about my provocative headline: George and Waldfogel never describe local newspaper adaptation as ‘dumbing-down.’ That’s my personal interpretation of what it means to become more local while targeting a less-educated audience, and I’m sticking to it.”

Wrong. The local strategy in the face of both the New York Times — and far more important, but ignored here, the Internet and cable — is the right move for local papers.

But there’s more here than that. Both Shafter and the study authors, Lisa George of Hunter and Joel Waldfogle of Wharton, reveal a number of common presumptions and prejudices about news:

Shafer assumes that local is dumb, which is to say that national and foreign is smart. That is a coastal prejudice: What happens in Washington, New York, and maybe once a month in L.A. is important and everything inbetween, in the flyover, is just dumb.

Shafer is also revealing his assumption about journalism: that the big, national story is closer to real journalism; the rest is just dumb.

Shafer and the authors lament that when The Times comes to town, the smarter readers (read: those living in better-educated zip codes) leave the local papers (“per capital local newspaper sales are 7% higher in low-education zones and 16% lower in high-education zones”). I’m not sure I buy that they proved the causality instead of merely a correlation; the growth of the internet occurred at the same time, giving those smart readers lots of choices — including to get their local news online, where the smart (which in this case just means college-educated and richer) went early on.

The biggest assumption they all make is that the people who dropped their local papers for The Times read and cared about the local news in them in the first place. This is the assumption of lecture media: If we told them, then they listened because we told them. But there is tons that I don’t care about and don’t read in the six papers — yes, six — we get each day (my wife reads most of them). See, you can lead a horse to paper, but you can’t make him read.

Finally, the study notes that when The Times’ trucks invade, the readership in the educated zipcodes decreases — but the readership in other (read: dumber) zip codes increases. Their assumption is that the papers got dumber. No, the papers may have just gotten more useful; they may have gotten rid of the often boring, commodity news that the editors think is important but the people don’t.

Maybe the local papers didn’t lose the smart people. Maybe they lost the people who didn’t care about local anyway. Or maybe they lost the snots. Or Yankees fans.

In any case, it would be a terrible business model to keep wasting paper and staff on the stories you can get not only in The Times but also online and on cable. But Shafer and the study authors unconsciously reveal just a stumbling block papers have to adapt to the competitive internet age. They still want to be all things to all people. They never were. They just didn’t know it. And they still want the ego of covering the big stories, even though no one cares about their bylines. They never did.

The summary of the study says:

In the late 1990’s, the New York Times implemented a national distribution strategy, establishing or expanding home delivery in more than 100 cities across the country. Using cross-sectional and longitudinal data on local newspaper circulation, Times penetration, and local newspaper characteristics, we find that as the New York Times circulation grows in a market, local newspaper circulation declines among college-educated readers. Local newspapers reposition toward local and away from national coverage, raising circulation among individuals without a college degree. Availability of national newspapers in local markets changes the relationship between local preferences and local products.

The study says that this harms some readers and benefits others but says nothing to define either harm or benefit. It makes a value judgment without defining the value.

They complain that “[i]ndividuals who switch from a local to an outside product might consume less local information, leading them to disengage from local affairs along the lines suggested by Robert Putnam in his well-known essay and book Bowling Alone. . . . An individual watching a fishing channel on cable television cannot, for example, simultaneously attend a political rally, read a local newspaper, or actually go fishing.” That’s simply the story in media today: We have choice.

So the real moral to the story about those Times trucks is that it is but one indication of what happens when a monopoly is challenged. The trucks installing high-speed internet had, I’m sure, a much bigger impact. We have choice and so we’re not stuck with our local papers anymore. And that will make us smarter.

: LATER: John Robinson, editor of the News-Record and a great hope for the future of news, also fires back at Shafer’s jet as it flies over Greensboro.

We’ve been focusing more and more on local news over the past two or three years, and as a result, have often been accused of “dumbing down.” Best I can tell, that means that whenever we don’t have the latest on Iraq or the Middle East or Washington politics on the front page, we’re contributing to the ignorance of the populace.

Has nothing to do with the Times. The Times as Wal-Mart analogy isn’t even close. In an age of 24/7 television news and many, many cable information niches, when millions of Web sites deliver every speck of detail anyone could want directly into the home and when broadband connections are growing faster than kudzu, why wouldn’t a newspaper want to specialize in what it knows best — its own community? . . .

You can read our paper and get a healthy dose of things that happened in Guilford County yesterday and things to do in Guilford County today and tomorrow. You can also get a taste of news from around the world. We can’t be all things to all people any longer. Too many choices are out there.

I know that many people don’t care what the City Council does or what the school board does. They don’t care about crime in low-income areas or knowing that airfares are high at PTI. Or even that both the Girls Gone Wild and Jeopardy visited Greensboro in the same week. But a lot of people do. It’s all a part of being engaged in what’s going on in your community. Community extends around the world, too, which is why we still have national and world news in the paper. But it’s not what we can do best and it’s not our focus.

Well said.