The local news: Dead as dial phones and cassette tapes?

The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota's largest newspaper and America's 15th largest, is one step closer to biting the dust.

The paper has filed for Chapter 11 in a last-ditch effort to restructure $661 million in debts. This follows an announcement from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that if the 146-year-old paper doesn't find a buyer within two months, it will close for good or switch to a pared-down, online-only version. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is said to be losing $1 million a week.

It isn't just the little guys who are clinging to the cliff face with their fingernails. Last month, the Tribune Co., which puts out the main dailies in Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, Fort Lauderdale and dozens of other cities, sought bankruptcy protection. Gannett Co., another big paper owner, sent home most of its employees for a week without pay. Now, many Americans are facing life without their local paper.

As these reports pile up, there's a distinct lack of panic in many observers. Some people seem to assume that there will always be a local newspaper around, or at least one in a city a short drive away that might employ someone who covers the important stuff where they live.

I, like many people, get a lot of news off the Web now. I click on the stories that grab me. The dangers of self-cultivated ignorance in that system are fairly obvious. But the new, Web-based world of journalism has an economic snowball effect, too. If papers close, we will not be able to pick from such a wide range of news in the future, including online.

If local papers shut down in numbers, there won't be anyone covering local issues anymore. No one will be keeping an eye on the goings-on at your City Hall, or in your zoning offices, or on the local ballfields. We may not always click on those topics when we're surfing for news online, but having them available is vital for the health and vitality of our communities, and the pressure keeps our politicians honest (well, usually).

Although many of us agree that we value local coverage, few of us are buying local papers in an effort make sure that coverage will be supported in the future. We're on the precipice of a future in which everyone has to get their news from papers published in cities far from their homes, such as New York, or ones that are generalized for mass consumption, like USA Today, or from international wire services. The only bodies paying attention to area goings-on will be local TV stations, and we all know the depth of the coverage they give us: Hope you like stories about cats nursing piglets.

So what can newspapers do to make sure they survive in some for, and to ensure that this vital American service is still performed? The Detroit Free Press' idea has been to pare itself to three times a week instead of daily. The New York Times has elected to start selling small ads on its front page (which, historically speaking, is not a new idea). One media blogger suggests that California's Bay Area merge its papers and put out just one Sunday edition. Other papers are debating going to online-only editions, although you have to wonder how many staffers they can pay (and so how much meaningful coverage they can generate) under such stripped-down circumstances.

I'd like to add another suggestion. Many of the people I know who don't subscribe to their local paper haven't made that choice because they think local coverage is useless. They made that choice because getting the paper can be a pain. If papers make the subscription process cleaner and easier, customers would be less annoyed by it.

That might mean making it faster to switch delivery on and off when they go away for a few days (a simple account webpage would do it -- as long as the delivery person stayed on top of things). Publishers might also consider collecting old copies for recycling one day a week as part of the service, which would prevent piles of old papers from stacking up in the garage.

Local papers clearly need to find a new model for giving us our local news. To make sure they stay afloat until they figure that out, I'm going to buy a copy of my local paper. I might even read about what went down at the last city council meeting.
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