Notes about the Future of Urban Journalism, Part 1

Demise of newspapers is opportunity to re-invent urban journalism

When I read recently about how the Christian Science Monitor will soon become the first major national newspaper to replace its daily print edition with a web site, I wondered when I’ll read about the first city to lose its last remaining print newspaper.

Newspapers once provided a viable way to fund journalism about cities. But as readership and revenues from advertising decline, this business model is failing. The prospect of newspaperless cities is real. If nothing takes over the role formerly played by newspapers cities will lose something important.

Think of what a newspaper does for a city.

With news articles and opinion pieces, it provides information and context for residents about what’s happening in the city. Those same articles and editorials when combined with photos and captions, obituaries, lists of personnel changes, classified ads, sports statistics, restaurant reviews and more comprise a daily scrapbook of city life. The multiplicity of functions and forms that all come together in one physical “space” make the newspaper a kind of city itself.

Guide, scrapbooker, metaphor. Every city needs a newspaper – or other form of media—that plays those three roles at a minimum. For the most part, I’d say that even bad local papers—and there are lots of them—perform these basic functions. But as someone who loves cities, I think cities deserve more and better than the basic journalism they’ve been getting lately from the current crop of faltering and shrinking for-profit newspapers.

I’d like to see newspapers (or whatever media form succeeds them) play an additional role for cities: cupid. Which is to say I want to start reading urban journalism that makes people fall in love with city living.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that urban journalists become civic boosters or chamber-of-commerce shills. What I want to read is professional journalism about cities that is motivated by a deep understanding of and love for what makes cities such vital places to live. As I conceive of it, journalists with these motives would not shy away from covering the problems of the city, but instead would be determined to confront them.

Journalists in love with the city would breathe new life into how urban issues are covered. As readers, we’d probably start learning more about infrastructure, about zoning codes, about income diversity, about sidewalks, about the potential energy and resource efficiencies of density, about architecture, about what makes a shopping district pulse, about the importance of well-designed public spaces, about traffic planning, about agglomeration effects.

And because these journalists would be motivated by their passion for cities to attract their fellow citizens’ attention, we’d probably be reading much more creative and interesting journalism about the city than we typically get in newspapers these days. (Of course, there is some good urban journalism being done out there now. Check out Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space's collection of "great urban journalism" links. Scroll down a bit on the right column.)

So, is the demise of newspapers as we know them a good thing for cities after all? Possibly.

But the fact that local newspapers are increasingly incapable of making enough money to support good journalism is hardly good news for cities. It’s also worrisome that there’s no obvious successor to newspapers –and the key roles they play for cities—on the horizon.

Still, the slow death of newspapers does create an opportunity to reinvent and reinvigorate urban journalism—or at least to think about how to do that.

This is the first in a short series of posts I’ll be writing about the future of urban journalism. The next post will be about how bloggers and citizen journalists, while useful and inventive, don’t have all of what it takes to replace the loss of real journalists writing for newspapers. Read the rest of the series: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

(Photo from Flickr user Pierangelo Rosati . The original full-sized version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


The Urbanophile said...

Frankly, in almost any city these days, blogs have become the de facto urban journalism medium. While they will never replace the need for the big city daily, and specialized publications like business papers or alt-weeklies, this is where the real urban enthusiasm and serious thinking is going on. Your own blog is a good example of that.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Dan. The paper here in Cleveland is actually laying off city reporters. Urban Paradoxes is in the process of creating a serious e-zine that examines a wide-range of urban issues in a way that challenges our preconceived notions as well as suggests solutions. Hopefully, there are serious writers out there, such as yourself, who will take up the challenge by submitting essays.
Initial details at http://www.urbanparadoxes.com

Anonymous said...

Here in Milwaukee the Journal Sentinel has been downsizing for years and in my opinion has done a poor job covering urban issues and as you allude to hasn't been a good advocate for city living either. So I'll add a little plug for my site UrbanMilwaukee.com where we try to cover the city, urbanism issues, and try to be an advocate for city life.

Dan Lorentz said...

Urbanophile: You're probably right that the Web's already doing much of the best stuff about urban issues. I want to see more, and I want to see it done on a more comprehensive scale. But more about that in my next post coming next week.

Frank A. Mills: I'll check out the site. Thanks for the link.

David Reid: I worked as a part-time sports writer for the Milwaukee Sentinel (before the merger), and I'm sad to see how Milwaukee's paper has been shrinking and shrinking. They are doing some good stuff, and their web site is one of the better one's I've seen for a local paper.

I really like your site, which is why I link to it from my personal blog, Flipping Pencils.

I grew up on the East Side and really like Urban Milwaukee's coverage. Very detailed. Right on point.

You might be interested to read my faux review of Maschine, a new brew pub located in the Menomonee Valley.
Here's the link: http://flippingpencils.typepad.com/blog/2008/09/milwaukees-best-new-brew-pub-is-maschine.html

Anonymous said...

@Dan First off congrats for joining Where, I'm a regular reader and it is definitely one of the more interesting reads out there. (and I've read flipping pencils as well)

Further I do read jsonline but it seems generally to of taken a suburban slant and well we've just got a different mission....

PS Brendan did you get your NAC issue? The 24 Hours in Milwaukee stuff is in it

Kevin C said...

Thanks for the great post.

Anonymous said...

This is really nice post, thank you for sharing with us.