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This is a problem. Matt Yglesias:
"Not only is it going to be intrinsically difficult to ever find a viable revenue model for paying a reporter to cover the zoning board if people don’t want to read about the zoning board, I’m not actually sure how much social value is created by unread articles about zoning boards."
I find it pretty disturbing that someone as relatively wonky as Matt Yglesias is making this argument. There's a lot of ignorance to unpack in just these two sentences, so let's do this systematically:
1. "If people don't want to read about the zoning board" Trust me on this: people don't want to read about the zoning board until people do want to read about the zoning board. No one wanted to read about the arcane details of Robert Moses's control of New York City until it turned out he was a massively corrupt, discriminatory tyrant, and then everyone wanted to read about it. But if people hadn't been writing unread (and unnoticed by the major city newspapers) articles about him before the story got sexy, it may never have broken at all, at least not in the depth that it ultimately did. Not to mention the obscure neighborhood groups that fired up the first rounds of coverage on Moses.
Just to take a Reader example, Ben Joravsky has been writing about TIFs constantly for years, to the point where people poke fun at him for his obsession. Now, it's not that no one has been reading them, but recently the story's gotten a lot more traction than in the past, to the point where we're seeing actual City Council action on the subject.
Why? It could be that in an economic downturn, the economic effects of Mayor Daley's shell game are much more obvious. Or it could be that with the parking meters and the Olympics, the general tide of economic mismanagement has lifted all boats. Or it could just be one of those things. But years of writing about it when it really wasn't a thing is part of making it a thing. (Joravsky is clearly not alone in pursuing under-the-radar civic journalism for years, it's just that his work is at the tip of my brain, for obvious reasons.)
2. "I’m not actually sure how much social value is created by unread articles" This is going to be a problem in the age of the Web, at least if publications pursue pageviews as an ultimate end. You can get a lot of pageviews from vapid bullshit, but that doesn't mean that "social value" is created. On the other hand, if only 500 people read a wonky local story, and 10 of them are the right people, then a lot of "social value" can be created.
This has historically been one of the advantages of the newspaper model - you can use profitable bottom-feeding to float much less popular beat reporting that's only of interest to a small audience. But as newspapers move to the Web, courting the social networking audience and zeroing in on the traffic generated by specific stories, I'm terrified that reporters on such beats will feel pressure to abandon them.
I am impressed that the Trib, which is upending its business model as quickly as any major media organization and has been pilloried for some elements of that, is doubling down on local watchdog info, going so far as to court the FOIA-filing crowd.
There's a preventative element of local journalism that's hugely important. Stories tend to only get a lot of attention after it becomes sufficiently obvious that there's a problem, which is to say when it's too late. As an example, I'd bet dollars to donuts that our cover story this week on charter schools will not be as widely read as our cover on parking meters (I could be wrong, these things are unpredictable, which is another point). Neither is the wrong approach, they're just different. Joravsky and Dumke were doing a postmortem on a massive fuck-up; Emily Krone is delving into a subject that's very much up in the air. The latter won't infuriate people, which means that, as the Web goes, it may not get passed around as much. But even if it just gets a small, influential group talking, it will have been worth it.