Thursday, April 15, 2010

Local Media

Given the important role ‘sense of place’ plays in community planning, public input sessions on community planning often start with some exercise to gauge the participants’ sense of place. Often these exercises are inventories of the community’s assets – the natural, cultural, historical and other features that make the place distinctive for its residents. Does local media get mentioned in these discussions? It should.

The local media can be an important vehicle for building community if a) the media companies are willing to do so and b) if the community members are willing to view that local media.

As a rural resident near a small town, local media for me is the local newspaper, a few local radio stations, a local repeater of a regional public radio network, local repeaters of region-serving broadcast television stations and internet-based media. We don’t get cable out in the country. That’s one of the advantages of living out in the country.

Our local paper is a typical local paper. Maybe 16 pages weekdays, two sections Sunday. No Saturday paper. I didn’t appreciate them dropping the Sunday funnies, but something had to go. Facing declining subscription and thus declining ad revenues, it had to shrink. It cannot afford a staff of reporters or much of an art department. It is still a daily (except Saturday) source of local news not available elsewhere. I also subscribe to a weekly paper from the neighboring county. As a weekly, they do nice, in-depth stories of regional interest.

The local radio stations have some local reportage, as well, and send the news crews out on assignments. It’s nice to see them at the local events.

Our television comes from a regional network of repeaters but the stations take their regionalism seriously and provide adequate coverage all around their region (a radius of more than 100 miles). The regional public radio is also good about providing news coverage of regional concerns.

My favorite of the local internet-based news sources is one particular resident who takes on the role of town crier. She has an extensive email list of civic-minded people who ask to be on her list. When people want to promote an event, they send her an announcement and she emails it out to people on her list. Thanks, Mary, for doing that.

What if we didn’t have local media? And without listeners/readers/viewers there wouldn’t be any. Where would you get reliable, accurate information you need to know in real time? There was the story a few years ago about the train derailment up in Montana that caused a public health emergency, but the news couldn’t get out because the one local radio station had given up locally produced programming in favor of a national robot program. That was before tweets so I guess now everyone could just tweet the news. I’m sure it’d stay quite accurate from person to person.

I heard of one town, that when the local paper folded, the library took on the responsibility of putting out a local paper. That’s how important a local paper was to that community.

So hurray for local media. Maybe your local paper won’t win a Pulitzer, but it is your local paper and needs your support, just like your local artists, musicians, shopkeepers, farmers, educators and the rest of your community does. I’m not talking pity purchase here, I’m talking about local companies providing local value. I know it sounds naïve to say that if local businesses provide value-add, they’ll get customers and I know that it’s hard to provide that added value and still keep costs contained. But I have no choice than to think it’s possible. I don’t want to give up on the possibility of viable local businesses – including local media -- adding to a community’s sense of place.

No Pity Purchase
The message ‘Buy Local!’ is a complex one. Yes, money spent locally circulates locally, building the wealth of your local community. But when you hear ‘Buy Local!’ don’t think pity purchase. It’s an attempt to strike a deal. Your local businesses endeavor to provide value you can’t get elsewhere. They’re asking you to let them try. Don’t just presume that the national chain provides better value. Give the local businesses a try.

I support our local hardware stores, not because I think it’s my civic duty. I spend my money at the local hardware store because I get to tap into their expertise when I purchase something. They have experience doing what I’m trying to do and know what would work best in a particular scenario. It also helps that they know me by name.
I can afford to pay a little more for that value, but often I don’t have to pay more. Often, the local hardware store’s prices are as good or better than the big box store’s prices.

Can a local business continue to deliver that value while containing costs and providing an adequate return on investment for the company’s owners? That’s the life-and-death question for our local businesses. Some can find creative ways to; some cannot. It’s never a good idea to buy an inferior product just to support the provider of that product. It’s always a good idea to be mindful of the entire value involved in a purchase.

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