Balkanized neighborhoods. Political apathy. Regional ennui. Click-bait coverage. What happens when a city loses its newspaper? We may find out sooner than we think.

In a moment of intense regional change, we thought it would be fun to ponder tomorrow from various angles. So for our April 2015 issue, we looked at the immediate future of Cincinnati.

Last year, roughly between Thanksgiving and Christmas, more than two dozen staffers with a combined experience north of 400 years left The Cincinnati Enquirer. Their exit was part of the most sweeping reorganization in the newspaper’s 175-year history, and another step in its rocky transition from print news to digital. It was also big news: a story about the exodus in the Cincinnati Business Courier was the best-read article across the entire 40-publication American City Business Journals chain and was passed around on social media for days. Nearly every conversation I had for weeks started with the words, “So what is going on at the Enquirer?”

With not quite seven cumulative years at the Enquirer spread over two stints, I was among the least experienced of the reporters and editors who departed last year. I moved here from Chicago to join the Enquirer in 1995 and left late in 1999 when the Internet startup boom beckoned. My first tour of duty took place during the final glory days of print, when the paper still employed a movie critic and the Internet was an oddity we thought might help boost circulation. In the decade-plus that I was away from the newspaper I had two children and freelanced from home. When I returned to the paper in 2013, the digital-first direction was clear, and it mirrored the strategy of news organizations across the country. The contraction was clear, too; there were far fewer bodies in the newsroom than the last time I’d worked there, and two more rounds of layoffs took place before I left.

Media observers speculate on when print newspapers will die. The global Newspaper Extinction Timeline, created by media futurist Ross Dawson, predicts they’ll be insignificant in the U.S. in two years; Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of News Corp. and one of the last news titans bullish on print, gives them until 2022. People in Detroit and Cleveland and Birmingham can no longer get a paper delivered to their houses seven days a week, and there’s no reason to think other cities won’t follow suit. Though we still enjoy daily delivery here in Cincinnati, the Enquirer is physically smaller than it was a few years ago, and it’s designed in Louisville and printed in Columbus, all part of cost-cutting measures put in place to keep it afloat. Even if the predictions of people like Dawson are years off, the trend lines are pretty clear, and they don’t point to a pretty future for print.

As a news consumer, I understand why. I appreciate digesting my news on cold winter mornings in front of a tablet instead of having to sprint outside to retrieve it. I don’t miss piles of newspapers in my recycling bin. After I’ve scanned local news, I can turn to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, even Le Figaro or Al Jazeera if events warrant it, and I can find original documents related to stories I’m interested in. When an overpass collapses on I-75, I can get updates and images immediately, not the next day.

Still, as people migrate online for their news, the news they’re looking for has changed and that change threatens our long-term civic health. People will continue to follow Washington politics as they do sports, rooting for their own team and insulting the other guys. And we’ll always know what’s happening on the streets around us, because we can see the potholes and the store closings. But it’s the stories in between—the stories that newspapers have traditionally taken the time to do—that are most at risk as the way we consume news changes.

Increasingly we lack a common regional narrative, with residents Balkanized by economics, politics, and demographics. As we slice and dice our news, paying attention mostly to the items our friends share and our affinity groups promote, there is one less thing that cuts across our differences to unite residents. In a place like Cincinnati, that makes progress harder on important but slow-moving issues like poverty, public transportation, cultural institutions, and economic development.

Tackling issues like these doesn’t require a daily newspaper. But it does require citizens who are invested and engaged—the kinds of people whose interests go beyond weird crimes and arguments over the streetcar. For generations, local newspapers have helped keep us engaged—reminding us that our politics, our public figures, our history, and our challenges are all part of a shared culture and concern.

Without that daily reminder? Soon, I fear, all we’ll have left in common are a fondness for the Reds and a paralyzing fear of snowstorms.

The death spiral of American newspapers has been closely studied in all its depressing detail. For much of the 20th century the industry worked for everyone involved: advertisers reached customers daily, readers kept up on a broad range of news, from sports and local politics to entertainment and national events, and newspaper owners made plenty of money uniting both. Newspapers developed their own personalities—the afternoon The Cincinnati Post tended to attract more blue-collar workers whose days started early, while the Enquirer was considered the establishment paper—but American newspapers never adopted the partisanship of their European counterparts. The business model gave news organizations the freedom to try to be everything to everyone.

Though the Internet gets most of the credit for the industry’s current dire straits, trouble started decades earlier, when advances in printing technology boosted the profits of many family-owned newspapers. Eventually the way papers were appraised changed, and many heirs sold their families’ newspapers because they could no longer afford the estate taxes. Their increased market value made them attractive to chains like Gannett (which owns the Enquirer), Knight Ridder, and Thompson. Family ownership had its drawbacks, but investors in media companies expected consistent profits of 20 percent or more a year, and the idea of journalism as a public service now contended with the need to turn a profit.

The geographic sprawl of most cities didn’t help the mission of newspapers either. Through at least the 1960s most of the population lived close to the urban core, and the decisions of Cincinnati City Council, for instance, affected most readers. But as people migrated to places like Florence and West Chester, news organizations had to expand their coverage, and stories that affected everyone grew less common.

Then came the Internet. For decades newspapers had fought off competition from radio and television. But the small staffs and crime-and-weather emphasis of television, in particular, could never compare with the depth and breadth offered by a city newspaper, and advertising revenues kept newspaper offices well-staffed. Online competition attacked the industry on two fronts: it lured away the most lucrative advertising, notably classifieds, through free services like Craigslist and their ability to target customers directly rather than broadly; and it gave audiences constant access to multimedia news. No one had to wait until the next day to read the paper anymore; they could follow plane crashes, terrorist attacks, and election results in real time.

The damage accelerated after the turn of the century. From 2005 to 2012, ad revenue of all America’s newspapers fell by roughly half, from $49 billion to $25.2 billion. Modest gains in digital advertising don’t begin to offset the plunge in print ads. In 2011, for instance, losses from print advertising outpaced digital gains by 10 to 1. Consider by contrast that ad revenue at Google climbed from $70 million in 2001 to $50.6 billion in 2013. In other words, Google reaped more than twice the ad revenue in 2013 than every newspaper in America combined.

The profits newspapers used to enjoy paid for large staffs, the kind that few (if any) local news outlets can still support as they move to primarily digital publishing. When I first arrived at the Enquirer in the late 1990s, we had a social-services reporter and a pop music critic; I covered religion for a time. As recently as 2004, the paper employed 178 full-time and 11 part-time editorial employees. At the beginning of this year, its website listed about half that, though it continued to advertise for several openings. The most recent cuts saw the elimination of positions like the higher education beat, and arts coverage was reduced yet again. Many news outlets have eliminated their statehouse reporters, though the Enquirer still employs one.

It’s not just your local paper that’s thinner than it used to be. From 2004 to 2013, the number of working journalists fell by 17 percent, from 52,550 to 43,630, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the bloodletting likely isn’t over: The decline of ad revenues far outpaces the loss of jobs at this point. Meanwhile, the ranks of public-relations specialists grew by 22 percent over the same period; there are now more than four PR people for every journalist in the country. It’s enough to make one wonder whether schools that still offer journalism programs are guilty of malpractice.

Newspapers aren’t free from blame for how things have turned out. When they had monopolies, they were often lazy, poorly written, biased, and uninspiring. The companies that run them now often place profits ahead of public service, in part because as publicly traded companies, their loyalty must be to shareholders first. Since the business model has unraveled, they have paid closer attention to what readers want and have tried to become more responsive, but it’s hard to turn an ocean liner.

My two years back in daily journalism convinced me, however, that readers bear some responsibility as well. I saw my Enquirer colleagues turn in outstanding coverage on transportation, publicly subsidized housing, state government, and a slew of other topics. While there certainly were readers who took the issues seriously, there were many more who joined in online discussions solely to call their opponents names, and many others who seemed to bypass anything of real value. It’s possible that people may have been more knowledgeable about the issues a few decades ago, but I suspect online comments and clicks have exposed most readers’ lack of engagement in subjects that take a little effort to understand.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. Fewer and fewer people vote, and it’s hard to get people to care about what their governments are doing and support watchdog journalism when they don’t even bother to show up on Election Day. Political apathy is particularly pronounced in the young: In 2014, only 23 percent of people under 30 voted in the midterm elections. The news younger consumers follow tends to come from their friends’ social-media feeds, where stories about state funding cuts or welfare reform don’t tend to do very well. To woo them, news organizations have created beer beats, celebrity reporters, and live gatherings, hoping that by entertaining younger Americans they may eventually become paying customers.

Digital publishing now allows journalists to see in real time what people are reading, and the results are not edifying. For decades print reporters considered themselves superior to their broadcast colleagues, because all television did was chase crime stories, car crashes, and scandals, with some sports and weather thrown in. Maybe, it turns out, that’s all people really want.

In 1920, Walter Lippmann, one of the most famous public intellectuals (and news columnists) of the first half of the 20th century, crystallized the civic importance of the newspaper in modern America:

The news of the day as it reaches the newspaper office is an incredible medley of fact, propaganda, rumor, suspicion, clues, hopes, and fears, and the task of selecting and ordering that news is one of the truly sacred and priestly offices in a democracy. For the newspaper is in all literalness the bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determines its conduct. It is the only serious book most people read. It is the only book they read every day.

Which raises the question: What happens when a newspaper disappears? A growing body of research looks at that question, with cautionary if incomplete answers. A 2009 study conducted by economist Sam Schulhofer-Wohl, with a 2011 follow-up, considered the effects of the closing of the The Cincinnati Post and The Kentucky Post, the E.W. Scripps papers that ceased publication in 2007. While Schulhofer-Wohl, now with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and his colleague Miguel Garrido noted their findings were “statistically imprecise,” they found that voter turnout in northern Kentucky, where the Post had the greatest influence, remained depressed nearly three years after the paper closed. Other changes: Fewer people ran for office in the suburbs where Post readership had been highest; incumbents were more likely to be reelected; and campaign contributions decreased. These effects were found even though Post circulation had fallen to 27,000 by the time it closed.

Other researchers have documented the effect newspapers have on civic life. Massachusetts Institute of Technology research found that congressional representatives are more responsive to constituents when they get a lot of coverage back home; another study, conducted by a professor from the University of California Merced found that the advantage enjoyed by incumbents is lower in cities with their own papers. A 2005 paper found that African-Americans are more likely to vote in places where newspapers that cater specifically to the black community are published.

The biggest challenges we face as a region are also some of the most complicated. We ought to be talking about how the region’s cultural facilities can work together to become more successful, since the arts improve the city’s quality of life in a way that attracts more residents. We ought to be talking about how improvements in public transportation can reduce traffic congestion and make the region more livable. We ought to be talking about how to change the way cities develop their economies, since the current model of competition is spurring a race to the bottom. But these are multifaceted issues that require educated, engaged citizens, and they require financial support for the kind of journalism capable of framing the debates.

Thinking my pessimism was maybe, well, too pessimistic, I checked in with Rick Green, who took over as the Enquirer’s publisher in March. Green is an ambitious, energetic man who edited Gannett papers in Palm Springs and Des Moines before becoming publisher in Cincinnati. He’s the rare publisher with roots in the newsroom: He and I were reporters together here, back in the 1990s.

Green acknowledges the Enquirer staff is smaller and the business challenges greater than when he was pounding a beat in Cincinnati. But he argues that the company can still play a role leading—and following the lead of—the community.

“I’ve always thought the hallmark of a dynamic metropolitan region is strong, sophisticated media,” Green said when we spoke a few weeks after his appointment was announced. “I think the Enquirer has been that and will continue to be that. I wouldn’t return to the Enquirer if I wasn’t convinced there’s a very bright, successful future there for me and the readers.”

I pushed him a bit: The business model, the readers, the click bait—can local news organizations compete with the steady stream of distractions that vie for the public’s attention? He pointed out that it’s not the same industry as it was 10 or 15 years ago, but what industry is?

“Everyone knows we don’t have the power we used to, but readers want us to curate the day’s most important news and do it on all platforms,” he said. “Readers tell us what they want and what resonates with them, and if we ignore that then shame on us.”

Perhaps readers are acting the way they’ve always acted, and now we just know more about what they do and don’t care about. In the days when everyone read the newspaper, maybe no one bothered to look at those stories from school board meetings; maybe all they wanted for decades was just to see what was on sale at McAlpin’s. But on their way to the classifieds, they had to pass the local news, and a story on education may have caught their eye. At the very least, an attempt to explain the life of the community landed on their doorsteps every day, and there was a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves, a shared set of stories in which they saw their neighbors and fellow citizens, and how they all fit into the larger civic framework. Now they get fragmented snapshots, filtered through the prism of their friends’ interests, and I fear it’s just not enough for us as a community to make the kind of well-informed decisions that can make life better in this region.

Local journalism can still make a difference, but something will need to change to reverse the industry’s slide. I don’t expect corporate journalism to save the day. Profits will always come before public service for companies like Gannett, so they are locked with readers in a death spiral: falling revenue leads to drastic cuts; then readers flee, complaining that the quality has declined, which leads to more cuts. And Gannett has a lousy reputation among journalists. It was the demeaning way the company handled last year’s reorganization at the Enquirer (all newsroom jobs were officially eliminated, and staffers had to apply for new jobs if they wanted to stay) that sent me and many of my colleagues packing. I finally realized, though, that readers didn’t value the service we were providing enough to support it. And knowing that I probably wouldn’t retire from the paper, it made sense to find a career doing something else.

Some cities have seen the launch of news nonprofits, supported by foundations or community donations, though those have met with mixed success. Wealthy individuals like Jeff Bezos and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar have invested in news organizations on a national level; it’s possible there are local philanthropists who value journalism’s public service over its profit-making potential. Digital advertising may finally hit its stride and allow news organizations to support some level of journalism close to what we used to enjoy, or perhaps a new business model will emerge.

And maybe readers will realize that a steady diet of the oddball and insignificant only brings more of those stories. Maybe they’ll start demanding more serious journalism alongside coverage of parties and traffic. Maybe someday they’ll see the value of professionals who gather and report the news and begin to pay again for news coverage—not just for a paper but for online news, public radio, magazines, and weekly papers. Maybe, at the very least, they’ll begin to click responsibly and prove they care about more than just craft beer and the Bengals.

It’s not so much about how the news is delivered as it is about whether people understand the mission enough to support it. Sometimes the only thing that keeps the powerful in check is a fear that their transgressions will be exposed. I just hope local journalism is able to chart its future before the corrupt and potentially corrupt figure out no one’s watching. People don’t value lawyers, either, until they are arrested.

Originally published in the April 2015 issue.

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