Why microlocal is a tough sell

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[I spent a long time on a comment over at a Michael Miner post, so I thought I'd repurpose it, because I think it's interesting]

Frequent commenter Pelham writes in the same thread:

"I wonder whether the problems confronting newspapers and some alt weeklies is really traceable to the fact that there is simply a dwindling population of people who wish to be informed in any meaningful or useful way about much of anything that matters."

My slightly revised response, after the jump....

I don't think so - I'm always surprised at the remarkable readership of political bloggers like Glenn Greenwald and Marcy Wheeler, just to name two of many. Firedoglake raised almost $100k on the promise of employing the latter. Not saying that people are making money hand over fist, but it's still encouraging to see earnest bloggers, many of whom provide more detailed and analytic political coverage than newspaper columnists, succeeding in developing large audiences.

On the other hand, I see a lot of that in national politics, but much less so in state and local politics (Capitol Fax and Calitics are exceptions, and I'm sure there are some others).

I think a big part of the struggle is this - a lot of alt-weekly content, and media content in general, is pitched towards 20-30 year olds in cities, especially well-educated people with good earning potential, because you want to grab them as they age into a ripe demographic for advertisers. And that's just not a good audience for local political content, unfortunately, even if a nontrivial percentage of those folks are smart, politically engaged, and well-meaning.

Here's why. Take me: I went to school in Hyde Park, and was still registered to vote in Virginia - I wanted to stay in Chicago, but I also wanted to work in my chosen field, and it's tough to start out in journalism in a big city. After graduating, I took a job around Medical Center, and my fiancee took a job in Oak Brook, so we split the difference and moved to Oak Park. Then I got a job downtown. After two years in Oak Park, we moved to Noble Square to be closer to friends and the bright lights of the city, where we lived for a year. Then she started law school (she mostly applied to schools in the city, but we were close to moving to Madison), so we moved to Woodlawn to be close to the school. But it was a long trip for me, and we have lots of friends on the north side, and Woodlawn has some failings as a residential neighborhood, so after a year we moved to West Town, where we're just starting our second year. We're pretty committed to Chicago (I like it, and I've built a lot of intellectual capital in the form of knowledge about the city that would vanish if I moved), but the law market is tough, so it's not inconceivable that we'd move out of state.

So all that time we've lived under one national government, one state government, two local governments, and four aldermen. And it's entirely possible that we might move again. And I think that's a pretty common scenario, at least from personal observation. It'd be great if we could both lock down jobs we like, settle on a neighborhood, buy some property, and start the long-term process of being informed residents of a ward instead of just a city or state. But it's a very complicated process - we both have pretty serious career ambitions, we've both invested a lot of time and money into them (a terrifying amount of money), and most importantly we both care a lot about having meaningful, interesting jobs, and that has and might mean again sacrificing geographic stability. I'm not trying to be tendentious, just saying: we're easy marks for earnest journalism, but a difficult audience for meaty local journalism.

In other words, a lot of alt-weeklies serve an inherently footloose audience while being devoted to content that's difficult to pitch to such an audience. It's unfortunate, but it's just tough to sell people who haven't settled down on local and microlocal political coverage because they probably aren't going to be in one place long enough to develop the sort of long-term interest that really allows you to understand local politics, the politics that make the city viable, or not. And that's without getting into the dilemma of pursuing an audience that's not appealing to advertisers, which is a whole 'nother ball of wax.

So when you see papers writing on generic midcult topics, it's possible they're just catering to base interests, but it's also worth considering the practical demographic considerations of a younger audience - even if you're trying to hit a thoughtful, well-educated portion of that audience. The more generic the topic, the more likely members of that audience will care.

I'm not saying we shouldn't do it, or that alt-weeklies and the topics they cover aren't viable, since they clearly can be. And I think there are very good reasons for what alt-weeklies cover; it's why I wanted to work for one, and why I continue to do so. But it's not without substantial difficulties. I have no complaints about them, but I try to keep them in mind.

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