THE BLOG

Flailing Dailies: Bye Bye Urban Newspapers?

01/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Harry Moroz Senior Adviser, Drum Major Institute for Public Policy

Last week, the nation's governors stormed Capitol Hill seeking federal aid to prevent spending cuts and to stimulate the economy through infrastructure spending. This week, the nation's mayors had their shot, outlining 11,391 "ready-to-go" infrastructure projects costing $73 billion dollars to produce almost 850,000 jobs in 2009 and 2010. The governors received an audience with the President-elect, while the mayors settled for congressional heavy hitters.

The intergovernmental struggle over funds - and who is best equipped to distribute them - has thus begun (a struggle which a White House Office of Urban Policy would officiate). It will play out with (more or less) polite criticism from both sides. As national newspapers, what few there are left, cover the broader political machinations of the struggle, the nation's urban dailies will pick up on the implications at the local level.

A frightening report from Fitch Ratings (free subs.) last week, which warned that "several cities could go without a daily newspaper by 2010" - along with The New York Times' new mortgage and Tribune Company's bankruptcy - should remind us that local papers - both online and off - are critical bridges between the mythical happenings on Capitol Hill and the very real sewer system that conducts your waste.

Here's how several urban dailies covered the mayors' D.C. trip and call for federal infrastructure spending:

Dallas could at once make immediate progress on a backlog of public works projects politicians consider critical to the city's economic well-being, without busting annual municipal budgets or overburdening residents with expensive bond programs.

In Providence, the identified projects range from those that have long been on the drawing board (a $20-million streetcar system downtown), are in the works (the $90-million renovation of Mount Pleasant High School and other school renovations), or in development (a $12.7-million investment in energy-producing wind turbines at Fields Point).

[Mayor Dan] Malloy's administration wants $333 million for various school construction and renovation projects, $40 million for the second phase of the Urban Transitway, $50 million to build a planned sewage-to-energy plant, and more than $50 million for various road, parks, sewer and other infrastructure goals.

"We've raised fees. We've raised taxes to demonstrate our willingness to pay our fair share," [Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann] said. "Most of these projects...are projects that already have partial funding. Now it just needs that extra push from the federal government."

The dailies at biggest risk are in big cities, while smaller newspapers are weathering the economic storm better. Indeed, city dailies in a tenuous economic state would likely not close their doors completely, but instead would provide only online content or eliminate weekend service. Still, any newsroom cuts are worrisome and PEJ's 2008 State of the News Media already found that 57% of the newspapers it surveyed gave less space to national news than 3 years ago.

No one can argue newspapers into profitability. But at least we can recognize that shifts in their focus and, indeed, in their number will alter how federal actions are perceived at the local level.