Elgan: Why global is the new 'local'

The real reason newspapers and radio stations are hurting -- and how they can thrive

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In the past, you couldn't learn about local news without physically driving to the town and buying the local paper. Of course, those days are gone.

Now you can get local news anywhere. Look, for example, at Lodi, Calif., a medium-size city of about 63,000 people. (You may recall the town from a 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival song.)

Search Google News for "Lodi" and there it is: more than 4,000 news stories, organized roughly by importance. Getting Lodi news on Google is faster, cheaper, more comprehensive and, well, better than the local Lodi paper. You can get Lodi news even if you're in Timbuktu. And, of course, you can get county, state, national and international news everywhere. Even if you're stuck in Lodi.

So what does "local" mean when you talk about "local newspapers"?

The real problem

What's really going on is that the Internet is punishing inefficiency. Looking at our Lodi links, the top story about a man who attacked a judge in court and was killed by police had 781 articles at my deadline for filing this column. It's really a story of national interest that happened to go down in Lodi. Many of those are wire service stories, or repurposed, and some cover multiple angles. But roughly speaking, dozens or hundreds of writers, plus hundreds of editors and other journalist types, are being paid to essentially write three or four stories. It's newspaper business as usual: massive waste.

Meanwhile, a truly local story in the Lodi News-Sentinel -- the local swim club held a crab dinner fundraiser -- was covered efficiently. Only one newspaper covered it.

The problem with newspapers is that they're stuck on the old model, where every newspaper covers everything. And the more important the story, the less efficiently it gets covered.

The driver behind this process is hubris. Newspapers delude themselves into thinking that readers read nothing else. The assumption is that it's not news until we cover it. So every newspaper covers the same story, wasting billions of dollars per year in duplicated effort industrywide.

And, for that matter, a related form of bigotry has always driven the whole "local" model for local radio and newspaper coverage. The model is based on pandering where the constantly reinforced message is that local people are better than people who aren't local, and local businesses, organizations, schools, churches and resources are better, too. Local radio and newspapers take an us vs. them attitude toward the world, and that's largely the business model.

Now that the Internet has killed "local," the survival adjustment that radio and newspaper companies must make is to cover local events for a global audience. Radio stations and newspapers must now consider the larger, newer audience, and stop the bigoted pandering. And they must also stop covering the larger world.

Local media must focus all resources on the coverage of local events. People in Lodi don't want to pay the local paper for the coverage of national news also covered in thousands of stories available on their cell phones and Internet-connected PCs.

It's time the so-called local media opened its eyes to the new reality: Nothing is local anymore. And it's a huge opportunity. The new mantra should be: Cover local events exclusively, but for a global audience.

Now, if you'll excuse me. I'm going to go listen to one of Houston's classic rock stations, 93.7 The Arrow, on my iPhone. Maybe they'll play Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Lodi."

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld.com blog, "The World Is My Office". You can contact him at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, "The Raw Feed".

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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