A central problem for newspapers in the past half century is that they became increasingly homogenized and thus lost their distinctive, individual identities. Admittedly, that was always a problem when people saw it as “the paper” rather than the Times or Post or Chronicle or Herald and so on. But in the days when a city would have two or more daily newspapers, each one needed to have some unique identity to set it apart in the marketplace. Sometimes it was along party lines – Republican or Democrat – or social identities, such as blue-collar or proper society, but often it also meant the kind of news that was emphasized: national and international, for instance, versus local. And hometown columnists were always a voice that readers could count on. Think Herb Caen in San Francisco, Mike Royko in Chicago, or Jimmy Breslin in New York – or any of the great sportswriters.
In those days, newspapers were thinner than they became in the last decades of the 20th century – often just two sections – rather than the four to eight that followed in the great mergers and closures that led most cities to have only one daily journal. Much of that problem, we should note, could be blamed on the “unduplicated readership” that ad-space buyers relied on in allocating their budgets. No matter how marvelous the Washington Star was in its final days, or the suburban Journal papers were in the counties around the city, they couldn’t overcome that hurdle – when it came to outright readership, the Washington Post had the monopoly. Since everybody had to read it, there was no point in advertising elsewhere.
With few exceptions – New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia – we’re left with single-paper markets where the product looks and reads like those everywhere else, except that the stories take place there than elsewhere.
As the local newspaper more and more became a one-size-fits-all model, what I no longer heard was the feeling that it “speaks for me” or my section of the wider community. And now, even those special voices within its pages are no longer there – one by one, the columnists were never replaced.
The newspaper I longed to create had little resemblance to that bland crime-and-crashes emphasis that too often prevails these days, in place of more difficult and costly investigative reporting or a bigger view that critically examines education, the fine arts, social justice, the environment, and so on.
It’s hard to get excited by what’s there. And we wonder why circulation kept declining even before the Internet?
This is, I should note, a contrarian viewpoint, since the publishers kept proclaiming the “improved service” each time they merged two papers into one. So here we are, online and blogging.
To find out more about Hometown News or to obtain your own copy, go to my page at Smashwords.com.