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Enquirer Right to Focus on Local News

By Ben L. Kaufman · July 25th, 2008 · On Second Thought

An aging, loving reader frequently called The Enquirer asking why some story in The New York TimesThe Enquirer was his paper. wasn't in his local paper. Jim wasn't angry, just disappointed. He expected so much more because

He never accepted that The Times was much richer and larger and could do things his paper couldn't. It was that personal.

I always wondered if anyone at the paper read it as closely as Jim did, but his relationship with the paper, although intense and informed in so many ways, wasn't unique. That's how generations felt about the newspaper they read every morning or afternoon.

Jim never would have understood The Enquirer's long retreat from national and world news. Forgive me, Jim, but it's a smart move.

Let me repeat a mantra that too many people overlook or reject: Every news medium's primary mission is to deliver audiences to the advertisers, sponsors or members who keep us in business.

If that's corporate journalism, so be it. To abuse a cliche, it's the worst possible arrangement except for all of the others.

We deliver those audiences through our news judgment and presentation. When we're smart about it, we prosper. Don Quixote is not our role model.

In the years since Jim's calls were silenced by death, readers and potential readers have gained increasingly easy access to other, more timely sources of national and foreign news. It's smart for a local paper to back off except where distant stories are too important to ignore.

I'm not talking about abdication or a vacuum but an approach to news selection and allocation of human and financial resources.

In short, local news is the franchise. It always was. No one else can provide it -- not national papers, not public radio, not local or network TV. The only competition is the weeklies, and Gannett, owner of The Enquirer, resolved a lot of that competition by buying most of those papers in and around Cincinnati.

CityBeat is no exception, except that it's not owned by Gannett. Our owners are local, as is the strength of our contents. We are Cincinnati's alternative weekly. We prosper when advertisers express their confidence in our ability to gain and hold readers through our news judgment, whether it's politics or arts and entertainment.

The Enquirer still carries national and international stories and a smattering of stories from Columbus in the Ohio editions. The Kentucky Enquirer follows this same path; local news is the most important content on an ongoing basis. News from Frankfort complements what the Northern Kentucky staff produces.

We can get state, national and international news elsewhere, especially on the Internet. Yes, not everyone can afford the Internet, but individuals and families who can't afford Internet access rarely bought a daily paper. If anything, they're better informed now if they buy The Enquirer because of the local news emphasis.

That said, everyone, including a lot of people at The Enquirer, wish there were more local news in the paper and its Web site and more of it had the breadth and depth of the staff's best efforts. That's not new. It's the same in every newsroom.

But here is where I'm going today. With the local emphasis in The Enquirer and neighborhood/suburban weeklies and the poverty of local and national TV news, small opinion publications are increasingly important to knowing what is happening and possibly why. It's true even if you take advantage of distant dailies on the Internet.

I was reminded of this by a story in The Nation on Sen. Barack Obama's foreign policy statements and advisers. For most of us, Obama is a blank slate on whom we're imposing our hopes. The Nation, a voice for progressives/liberals/socialists for more than a century, decided to see who also might be writing on that slate.

It's not a pro-Obama article. It's not hostile. It names names and then quotes them. It tells us what these advisers are telling the man who has at least an even chance of being the next president.

Neocons have The Weekly Standard. Its best bits include expertise on the Middle East/Iraq and an occasional poke in the eye to the traditional media with stories they’ve ignored or forgotten.

The New York Review (of books) has some of the best reporting and smartest reviews on public affairs. The New Yorker continues to provide Seymour Hersh a platform for his investigative reporting. I'll leave the discussion of the Obama satirical cover to others.

The Progressive regularly offers takes on events, trends and policies that The Nation and others often ignore.

There's plenty for everyone. The National Review continues to be a mainstay of thoughtful, intellectually lively conservatism. Commonweal and Commentary remain vital. I could go on.

No daily newspaper -- not The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today or The Los Angeles Times -- ever matched the sum of these small publications. They never tried.

So judge The Enquirer on the quality of its local reporting, asking whether the stories are material to our lives and the information is provided without bias. Ask if the paper's Web site is not only competitive with other local sites but whether the stories being promoted are the ones we need to read. Then judge the national dailies on what they do best.

It's a struggle for all of them to attract and hold audiences and advertisers. Damning them for what they can't do -- or never tried -- is useless.

Meanwhile, the Internet undermines their ability to gain and hold audiences and advertising is leaving the dailies' printed pages. And that means layoffs and thinner papers ever less able to fulfill the obligation to bring audiences to advertisers.

If you haven't tried one of these small journals of opinion, go online and taste them. Go to the public library and curl up with one. And be sure to choose at least one whose bias, whose perspective, whose slant leaves you sputtering. Or pick up a free copy of CityBeat. That's where the fun of reading kicks in.

Curmudgeon Notes
• Don't you just love it when the news media can't decide if their audiences are adult enough to hear what a public figure says? Unhappy with the way Obama speaks to blacks about faith-based programs, Jesse Jackson failed to assume the Fox mic was live and was taped saying, "I wanna cut his nuts off." Or didn't you know what he said about the man most likely to fulfill Jackson’s ambition to be president?

How many news programs or papers printed that remark in full without bleeps, dashes or asterisks? To the degree that Jackson remains a public figure, he deserves to be quoted fully and accurately so that his publics can appreciate the strength of his displeasure.

• Let's abandon the cliche "energy independence" and challenge any public official or figure who uses it except to ridicule the idea. Drilling for domestic oil won't create energy independence. Solar energy won't create energy independence in our lifetimes. Stupid restrictions on speculators won't bring energy independence. Etc., etc., etc. It's not going to happen. We will continue to import oil and natural gas no matter what else happens, so long as anyone will sell it to us.

This energy independence nonsense is a particular dream of the oil men in the White House, but it's nonpartisan when you listen to politicians' blarney stenographically repeated by reporters and editorial writers. Independence? We can't even talk about how many years it will take to replace the least efficient vehicles on the road with electric cars, hybrids or whatever.

• Why do reporters, especially radio and TV, talk about dead people having "passed on?" Passed on to what? If they know something we don't, they ought to share it. They died. After that, it's theology, not facts, and there is no agreement on the theology of what, if anything, follows our deaths except the popular resort to euphemisms and pieties. It wasn't that long ago that obits referred to "a long illness" when it was cancer. Now we tell you which cancer. So how about candor on death?

• And a note to broadcasters: Every homicide is not a murder. So stop telling us that "two men were murdered" or a "teenager was murdered." We don't even have a murder rate. Murder is but one of many kinds of homicide.

• My other reader, Randy Ludlow, late of The Cincinnati Post and now at The Columbus Dispatch, gently disputes my complaint about the Ohio news media's delayed comprehension of Sen. John McCain's problems with anti-Catholic, anti-Muslim bigoted pastors. He sent along a May 23 Dispatch story on just that subject that I had missed.

CONTACT BEN KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



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