The Struggle Over Local Media: An Interview With Eric Klinenberg (Part One)

Earlier this summer, I moderated a panel on "News, Nerds and Nabes': How Will Future Generations of Americans Learn About the Local" as part of a conference which the MIT Center for Future Civic Media hosted for the Knight Foundation. My panelists were Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at New York University and author of Fighting for Air:The Battle to Control America's Media. Our topic of discussion was the crisis in American local media -- particularly the decline in local newspapers. In this exchange, I tried to take panelists through core assumptions about the value of local media, the current threats it confronts, and possible scenarios through which citizens could play a more active role in reshaping the flow of information in their communities.

Following from conversations we had at the conference, Klinenberg agreed to be interviewed for this blog. His book, Fighting for Air, emerged prior to the increased public visibility which has surrounded these issues and so it may not be fully on the radar of many invested in rethinking the infrastructure for civic media. I'd gotten to know Eric through our mutual participation in a series of conversations hosted by the Aspen Institute on media policy and was delighted to have the chance to share his perspective with the readers of this blog. In the conversation that follows, we not only discuss issues surrounding local media but also talk a little bit about the cultural politics of media reform.

You published Fighting For Air almost two years ago. How would you evaluate the state of local media now as opposed to then?

Let's start counter-intuitively, with some good news: There's actually strong demand for local news and information. We all know that paying subscribers of print newspapers are an endangered species, that fewer of us watch local news on TV, and that, except for a few public stations, local news and music on the radio died in the 1990s. But local content is flourishing online. For instance, no matter where you're reading this, odds are that the overall readership for your local paper is higher than it has been in years. The problem is that fewer of us are willing to pay for journalism, and now, as a consequence, stories that you may want or need to know are beginning to disappear.

Some have faith that the supply of local reporters who do primary journalism will be replenished by new players in the emerging media eco-system. Today they can point to any number of innovative local news websites, from Crosscut to Voice of San Diego, which offer a glimpse of the world after newspapers. Others go further, arguing that the next generation of news outlets will be better than the one that is now dying off. After all, how many of us were satisfied with our local news options before the current media crisis?

I'm not persuaded. At the very least, it would be hard to argue that bloggers and citizen journalists have already replaced the beat reporters who, not long ago, were the best watchdogs we had at the Statehouse, City Hall, the school system, the local business scene, and the like. And what a time to lose them! The federal government is spending trillions of dollars on an economic bailout and stimulus package, and much of this money will go directly to states, municipalities, or the private sector. Does anyone trust them to police themselves, especially now that so few reporters are covering them?

I agree with David Simon (creator of The Wire), who recently told Congress that there's never been a better time to be a corrupt politician.

Right now, the focus is on the closing or threatened closing of a number of local newspapers around the country. Yet, Fighting for Air situates this decline in local newspapers in a larger context where the consolidation of media ownership has also impacted local radio and television. To what extent is the current concern about newspapers linked to that larger set of trends?

Directly. First of all, key elements of the journalism crisis pre-date the broader economic crisis. Take the loss of reporters. The layoffs started when big chains - Gannett is the classic example - began buying up papers throughout the country, driving out their smaller competitors (sometimes by violating antitrust law, as Fighting for Air reports), and then slashing their own editorial staffs to raise revenue. As monopolies, newspapers were fantastically lucrative, earning annual profit margins of 20, 30, or 40 percent, while the typical Fortune 500 company was getting a margin of 5 or 6 percent. The most entrepreneurial companies - Gannett, Tribune, and Knight Ridder, to name a few - went on feeding frenzies. They borrowed heavily to finance acquisitions of new papers, television stations, and all kinds of entertainment enterprises. They wanted to become giants, but to do so they had to load up with enormous debts.

As we now know, many of the properties they acquired turned out to be losers. Today newspapers have plenty of competitors for revenue. They've lost most of their classifieds. Their advertisers are cutting back, or posting ads online at a fraction of the price they used to pay to be in print. Their audience is refusing to subscribe if they can get content for free. The local TV stations they purchased are also in trouble. And the industry's technological fantasy, that they could merge print, TV, and Internet reporters into efficient and more profitable multimedia operations, just hasn't panned out.

The challenges of transforming newspaper companies for the digital age are formidable. The current economic climate is brutal, especially because the most reliable sources of newspaper ad dollars - car dealers, real estate developers, and department stores, to name a few - are all on life support. But what's driving newspaper companies over the edge is that they cannot just deal with these crises. They also have to service their crippling debts, and some just can't pull it off.

Look at what's happened to the great newspaper chains: Knight Ridder is out of business. Tribune is bankrupt. Gannett may well follow. Even the New York Times is teetering. When we autopsy these great corporations, the rise of the Internet or the recession may well look like the primary causes of death. Less visible, but equally lethal, is the self-inflicted damage done by their own executives. They weren't satisfied to run newspapers. They wanted to run conglomerates. And now we are all paying the price.

Throughout your book, you keep returning to the question of how local communities respond to disasters -- from storms to chemical leaks. Can you use that problem as an example to walk through some scenarios for how local communities may receive information in the future?

Disasters have always shaped U.S. media policy. Miscommunication on the airwaves after the Titanic went down helped to inspire the nation's first broadcast regulations, and (as the opening of Fighting for Air reports a dramatic failure of communication after a toxic spill in Minot, North Dakota triggered the most important development in recent media policy history: the emergence of millions of media activists, who collectively helped block a radical de-regulatory push from President Bush's appointees on the FCC.

Since the Cold War, the core public service responsibility of American broadcasters has involved issuing alerts during emergencies (who doesn't remember those radio announcements saying, "This is a test of the Emergency Broadcasting System. It is only a test"?), and then reporting on the aftermath. But that system has broken down, in part because of technological failures, and in part because digital voice tracking systems have replaced so many of the live human beings who once worked as radio reporters and DJs. Given our tempestuous climate, today all of us should know where we would turn for information if disaster strikes. But if the power goes out and your Internet service shuts down, what are you going to do?

In theory, mobile communications technologies are ideal for circulating emergency alerts (with, say, a reverse 911 program) and urgent news items. In practice, however, they haven't worked because our communications infrastructure is so shoddy. If you were in New Orleans during Katrina or New York City on 9/11, you were much better served by a battery operated radio than by a cell phone. There are many lessons from these events, and one of them is that "securing the homeland" (as our federal officials like to say) is going to require a far greater investment in building an information infrastructure than we are currently making.

Eric Klinenberg is Professor of Sociology at New York University. His first book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, won six scholarly and literary prizes (as well as a Favorite Book section from the Chicago Tribune). A theatrical adaptation of Heat Wave premiered in Chicago in 2008, and a feature documentary based on the book is currently in production.

Klinenberg's second book, Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media, was called "politically passionate and intellectually serious," (Columbia Journalism Review). Since its publication, he has testified before the Federal Communications Commission and briefed the U.S. Congress on his findings.

Klinenberg is currently working on two new projects. One, a study of the problem of urban security, examines the rise of disaster expertise, the range of policy responses to emerging concerns about urban risk and vulnerability, and the challenge of cultivating a culture of preparedness. The other project is a multi-year study of the extraordinary rise in living alone. He reported on parts of this research in a recent story for NPR's This American Life, and is now working on a book, Alone in America, which will be published by The Penguin Press.

In addition to his books and scholarly articles, Klinenberg runs the NYU Urban Studies seminar, and writes for popular publications such as The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, The London Review of Books, The Nation, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique, and Slate.