Larchmont and Mamaroneck’s small, local news outlets are faring better in the current difficult economic climate and fast-changing Internet/technological environment than their larger counterparts, a panel of four journalists told the Local Summit at its September 15th meeting at the Nautilus Diner in Mamaroneck.
Views differed as to what the larger publications can do to turn things around, but all agreed the community has a deep stake in preserving major sources of county, national and international news.
Regional and National Newspapers Suffering
Lead-off speaker Laurel Babcock, community life editor of the Journal News/Express Publication, said that “everyone is hurting” among the large regional and national newspapers. Readership is down and along with it advertising. Her publication just laid off 40 staff reporters, she said, “about one-fourth of the resources we bring to news.”
Joe Berger, columnist/reporter of the New York Times, speaking on the panel as an individual, observed that “in some ways the situation is worse than Laurel mentioned. Young people are getting their news on the Internet and we’re losing circulation.The authority of the newspaper is no longer there and that’s the real problem.” He said that this apathy is what is driving papers in Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere into bankruptcy. He noted that his paper bought out 100 journalists last year and there may be more in the future. It is selling WQXR and other assets not essential for its survival.
Local News Weeklies Expanding Coverage
Mark Lungariello, associate editor of the HomeTown Media Group that publishes five area weekly newspapers including The Sound & Town Report, said that a reduction in local news coverage by the larger papers has actually created opportunities for organizations such as his. “Our newspapers are specific to the communities they serve. We give microscopic coverage. We have reporters in each community and they get out into the community and are seen. We’ve increased our focus and upped our game.” He urged his audience to send his staff any worthwhile material.
Judy Silberstein, publisher and editor of the Larchmont Gazette, an online news journal, said her publication was different from those of the earlier speakers. It focuses on Larchmont and Town of Mamaroneck, and sometimes a bit on the Village of Mamaroneck if the news impacts both communities. It is published only on the Web. “We rely almost entirely on volunteers. We have no expenses to speak of. While we take ads, the income is not significant to our operation, and so the economy is not really impacting us. Actually, it is benefiting us in that some wonderful people who are out of work, including professional writers, are volunteering with us.”
She observed, “The more the Journal News backed out of local coverage, the more motivation there was for us.” But, she acknowledged that she was concerned about both the Journal News and the New York Times reducing news coverage and increasingly substituting commentary for news. “Everything starts with the news — finding out what has actually happened.” She said that “only when we know what has happened can we have informed comment.”
NOTE CORRECTION September 24, 2009: Ms. Kreisman reports that she said The Loop is “specialized” (not special, as originally reported).
Large Media Have New Initiatives
Ms. Babcock said the Journal News has promising plans for building circulation and income. She said a new publication, Sunday Express, will be embedded in the Sunday Journal News. It follows on the success of the company’s Thursday Express, an affiliated tabloid that summarizes weekly news for designated sections of the county. She said the company also is expanding an already extensive Web site to boost visibility and advertising.
Mr. Berger said the New York Times Web webite has been very successful, both in circulation and advertising. “It draws 20 million hits a month and this augurs well for the future.” He said the publication plans to raise income by charging viewers for Web access. “There will be some form of metering.” The first 100 or 200 words would be free; to access the rest of the story might require some sort of payment.
Hyperlocal Networks and Partnerships?
The two local web site editors presented ways they may expand their news coverage, filling gaps left by the retrenching bigger publications. Ms. Kreisman told of growing networks of hyperlocal publications that could “feed into each other.” She envisions this possibly morphing into regional and national shared coverage.
Ms. Silberstein suggested that local media like hers might seek to form partnerships with such outlets as the Journal News and the New York Times to fill news gaps.
Mr. Berger said he was a little concerned about “how we would control accuracy. At the Times, when I turn in a story, there are five levels of editing that follow.” Ms. Babcock concurred. “There must be some standard for vetting and accuracy.” She asked what would happen if something went wrong with a story picked up from a local publication. Who would be held responsible? Wouldn’t blame fall on the larger publication? She said the idea of partnering between small and larger news gatherers, however, “bears discussion, but has to be treated carefully.”
Officials Fear Declining News Quality
New York State Assemblyman George Latimer and Mamaroneck Village Mayor Kathy Savolt both voiced concern with declining news quality.
Ms. Savolt said that it is increasingly difficult to recruit first-class political candidates because many of them are concerned with being tarred by blogs and other sources which are not held responsible for what they report.
George Latimer went on to suggest it would be a disaster if the Journal News and the New York Times were out of business. “Where would we get county and national news? We’d be dependent on talk show radio and Jon Stewart to get our news,” he said.
Audience member Rina Beder compared the information/misinformation issue to a water filtration system. The filtration system eliminates the dirt and mess, she said. “We need a filtration system for blogs and similar outlets. There has to be a line between news and gossip,” she said.
In a related matter, Erik Lewis, executive director of LMC-TV, announced he hopes to put together a weekly or monthly Reporters’ Roundtable program in which reporters and editors can discuss recent news. He asked the speakers and audience to help secure roundtable candidates.
The Local Summit, which hosted the meeting, is an informal community council that seeks to make the community a better place to live for everyone. Its regular monthly meetings take place at 7:45 a.m., on the third Tuesday of the month at the Nautilus Diner in Mamaroneck.