One of the talk-radio stations here in Rockford bills itself as “All Local. All Day.” It is an interesting slogan, in light of increasing reports of the impending failure of local media; it would be even more interesting if it (or a version of it) were not used by hundreds of other talk-radio stations across the United States. The station managers and staff may have the best of intentions, but most of these stations are also part of a national (or regional) chain of media outlets, and the “All Local” format is most often a business decision made in a boardroom far from the studio where it must be turned into reality.
That leads to certain anomalies. For instance, our “All Local” station features a host who lives in, and broadcasts from, Wisconsin—and not just across the border, but about as far away as Chicago is from Rockford. He is a good host, having actually once lived here, and he is quite willing to talk about Rockford news and controversies. Yet there is still something odd about the idea of a “local” show originating from someplace that cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called “local.”
Most of the discussion of the potential demise of local newspapers and other local media has blamed their decline on the rise of the internet. There may be some truth to such assessments, but not in the way in which they are usually framed—namely, that the internet somehow magically provides us with up-to-the-minute news about everything we need to know. In all but the largest cities, it is still hard to find local news on the internet—and, in the largest cities, it is equally hard to find useful news on a scale that could reasonably be called local (i.e., at the level of the extended neighborhood).
Rather, even most self-billed “local” news sites feature a high proportion of national and international news, much of it obtained from wire services. Why go to the website of my local newspaper or TV station to read about Barack Obama’s decision to release Bush-administration torture memos, when I can find everything I need to know on the front page of Google News or the Drudge Report?
Worse yet, why bother watching the “local” news or listening to “local” talk radio or reading a “local” newspaper when much of the content is neither local nor fresh, having been available online for many hours before the program started or the issue went to press (much less showed up on my doorstep)? It is hard to see a bright future for a business model that depends on a customer base that has limited access to the internet (or, at best, limited interest in accessing the internet), since that audience is shrinking every day.
This is the point at which all the “local media is dying” reports claim that the problem is insoluble, that the newspaper is finished, that local TV stations would be better off showing Seinfeld reruns at 6:00 p.m. and local talk radio should give way to the prepackaged musings of Rush Limbaugh or Ed Schultz. Sometimes they halfheartedly suggest one alternative: Local newspapers can transform themselves into online-only publications, and thus compete with Google News for pageviews and, more importantly, the ad impressions that bring in revenue.
All of these assessments are based on the idea that there is no market for anything that is truly local. And when we look around at the homogenization of entertainment and food and everything else under the sun, that argument seems almost unassailable. Almost.
Until we consider the possibility that people aren’t interested in local news sources because there is nothing really local about them. To take just one recent—local!—case in point: On Friday, April 3, Hassan Abujihaad, a former U.S. Navy signalman and a convert to Islam, was sentenced to ten years in prison for revealing classified information on ship movements in the Persian Gulf to the operators of a jihadist website in Great Britain. The local media here in Rockford picked up the story from the newswires and ran it on their websites. For them, it was just another national news story.
Except that it wasn’t. It should have been on the front page of the next day’s Rockford Register Star, and it should have received top billing on the six o’clock news that evening. Why? Because, as longtime readers of Chronicles and this column know, the story depended on a local connection. Abujihaad was at one time the roommate of Derrick Shareef, the local jihadist who hatched a plot in 2006 to toss grenades into the midst of crowds of Christmas shoppers at the largest mall in the Rockford area.
Shareef’s arrest was made possible through the efforts of an FBI informant, and that same informant was able to leverage the fact of the arrest to get Abujihaad to provide, on tape, key evidence that led to the latter’s arrest.
In other words, without the Rockford connection, Abujihaad would likely still be a free man. Rockfordians might well have found that of interest—certainly of more interest than the sentencing alone, which is how all but one local news outlet reported it.
That outlet, TV station WQRF (FOX 39), is to be commended for discussing the local connection, but even they confined it to a two-minute segment on the evening news that aired right before the local sports.
There is a business model for local news, but until newspapers and radio and TV stations take seriously the motto “All Local. All Day,” they will continue to struggle—and to fail.