331 Comments
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Publications need something between "No Access" and "Pay $10/month and hope you don't forget to cancel". Papers used to sell single issues you could peruse all day. The pursuit of subscriptions above all else is a detriment to me reading things like the Financial Times or The New Yorker

Yes, I know there are some workarounds, but I feel bad stealing from them just because I don't like their revenue model / pricing.

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No one has ever been able to make the economics work with individual digital purchases. Most people simply find even $1 to be too large of a barrier when there's so much free content online. And the revenue stream is highly volatile relative to subscriptions and ads. Much better to entice potential subscribers with occasional free articles and other online engagement in order to get the reliable recurring revenue of subscriptions.

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Jan 30Liked by Ben Krauss

For example, if Slow Boring started offering individual purchases, then I imagine fewer free subscribers would convert to paid over time because when they finally got over their barrier to paying, they can contend themselves with a single article rather than committing to a subscription. Matt and co. would have to regularly convince free subscribers and guest to making purchases, whereas now they just need to get us to click subscribe once.

Furthermore, once we commit to a purchase, we're more likely to read future paid articles that we've already bought. We may even feel compelled to consume to justify our past purchase decision. As we grow accustom to the habit of reading SB, our subscription becomes increasingly sticky.

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I doubt many people feel compelled to do much by an $8 purchase. A single drink in a bar costs at least that much.

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On the other hand, if you pay for an $8 Sunday afternoon beer bust, you might stick around all afternoon and “get your money’s worth” for the “subscription” you purchased, rather than head to another bar.

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do those still exist?

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I doubt that there are $8 beer busts any more, but beer busts do continue to exist, at least at gay bars on Sunday afternoons.

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My strong default is that if it doesn't exist it's because it's already been tested and it's a bad idea. Here I'm just stubbornly gonna refuse. It makes no sense that newspapers and magazines can't replicate the prior physical economic models work digitally. I suspect there's too much payment friction but you should be able to now get around that with Apple Pay push two times to read. I don't get the volatility either. They had the same volatility in physical distribution prior.

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The biggest difference is people have become looser with their money and subscribe to things and forget to cancel them. Whether to have cable used to be a big decision. Now grads students go on airplane vacations.

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grad students get college to pay for their airplane vacations! i was a shameless milker of conference funds to take trips to where I wanted to go

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The barrier to entry for a physical subscription was a lot higher - you had to deal with these things physically piling up at your door, rather than just flowing into your inbox.

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Do you not remember how hard physical newspapers used to push subscriptions? Sure you *could* buy individual issues every day, but they wanted guaranteed daily sales, whether from an individual customer or from a news stand that would order the same number of copies every day to resell.

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the wayback machine is everyone's friend

information wants to be freeeeeeeeeeeee

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I could see having Substack operate a "pay $10/month minimum into an account you have with us and you can buy any paid Substack article for $1" scheme. Also, it's not refundable: your Substack Balance can't be turned back into cash (and you can't buy articles on your own Substack). And you can't keep using the Balance after your subscription ends, so you can't build up a balance and then slowly spend it down: you have to put in $10/month to be able to buy articles at all.

That would avoid the worst of the problem with micropayments where you have to break past the barrier to paying over and over again, and also creates somewhat of a "use it or lose it" mentality to the Balance, meaning people get the ability to buy a single article that their regular Substack linked to without having to take on yet another subscription, while writers get a useful boost from one-off visitors who are unlikely to subscribe.

Perhaps only let people use Substack Balance if they are paying for at least 2 Substack subs, or something.

[Also, you'd have to let individual substacks set different per-article rates, make it 1/5 of the lowest subscription rate, for instance, so it's $2/article if it's $10/month]

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Jan 30·edited Jan 30

What substack and similar platforms need more than individual purchases is magazine-like bundles. Since it's digital information that costs nothing to copy, there seems to be value left on the table here. If a user would fork out $40 a month for four separate subscriptions (a lot for only being able to read the work of four people!), everyone wins if the user can get 20 related subscriptions for $5 more. Remember we get access to *all of the content on Netflix for $10 a month*!

The only reason I subscribe to slow boring is Matt is insanely prolific. Other writers, even ones I like a lot, are giving you something 1-2 times a week for $10 a month. On a per article basis that's awful value compared to a traditional magazine.

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Jan 30·edited Jan 30

Substack kinda does do this, because monthly subscription fees are quite low and its trivially easy to cancel.

Am I the only one who will sometimes buy one month of access to a substack and then cancel immediately? Then you get 30 days of access, you can read the archives, and its like $5-10.

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Why not charge $2 an article? Most SB subscribers would rather pay $8 a month than $10 to get 5 articles. The people who are willing to pay $2 for an article are also probably a pretty attractive pool of potential customers?

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I agree that this seems plausible. A $75 New Yorker subscription costs about $250 if you buy it weekly at the airport.

But the math is even more generous than you suggested, isn't it? At $2 an article, don't SB readers get about $40+ worth of material a month?

Edit: but the single article cost has to be relatively high to make it economically feasible. Wildly variable income streams are less attractive than steady, predictable ones, even with an income premium.

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which is why $2 versus 40 cents an article seems reasonable. people who want an article for a buck just want cheap shit. see what a dollar gets you at starbucks!

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Because psychologically, using a pre-paid voucher and paying out of pocket, even for the same product at the same price isn't the same. It probably is a sunk-cost fallacy or similar illogical factor, but the willingness to consume something where I've already is much higher - it removes the mental friction of calculating, "is this really worth it." Because for any given article the answer is probably, "no it is not worth $1 for me to spend 5 minutes reading this article." But the same aggregated calculation of pay $10 for 10 articles, or whatever, probably does pan out because I'm able to value the investment in my personal enrichment. I'm not paying for 5 minutes, but rather I'm paying for insight and relevancy. Or support independent journalism or whatever.

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I really think something like integrated Apple pay on click would work for someone on mobile.

"1 dollar for today's issue."

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I think the problem is that they’d be afraid that letting people pay without signing up for a subscription would drastically cut into the money they make from people who subscribe with the intention of canceling it but then forget and end up accidentally paying for a subscription for months.

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As a consumer, I say: gosh, what a shame.

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That's Matt's point though. All this competition is good for consumers from the narrow standpoint of making content cheaper. It is terrible for the industry of journalism though.

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We briefly talked about this in intermediate macro: too much competition can compete away profits, kill innovation, and hurt consumers.

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That's a good point. Occasionally, usually in sports, there will be an article I want to read. I'd happily pay $1 to read the single article. Why not? But they insist I sign up for a subscription (typically with a super cheap entry fee, which I pay). Then I forget I subscribed and three months later angrily cancel.

Then the next time I want to read an article I don't subscribe because I know I will forget.

Just let me pay the $1 (or $0.50) and I would be happy

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author

You're describing my relationship with the Athletic over the past three years. We're in a tumultuous cycle.

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My eyes mis-scanned that as Atlantic, and it very much still works.

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I regret the $60 I gave to the Atlantic, but their best features are totally worth $4 or buying one at an airport news stand.

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they are. but archive.org has it for free if you're willing to go through a couple of layers of bullshit.

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I feel the same. I'm in Phoenix and at times I want to read articles from big daily local papers in my region (SoCal, Nevada, Mtn West States) and it makes no sense to plop down $10-$20/mo for a subscription, but I'd gladly pay $0.50-$1 to access an article, but that option is precluded so I go elsewhere. It's like journalism needs an NBA League Pass that protects the local market, but lets you access out of town content at a reasonable price.

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This is exactly what happens to me with several publications.

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I wonder if a larger portion of sales being buy-once would dissuade publications from writing clickbait (grabbait?) headlines that are obviously BS once you read the article. Or if it would encourage it, for that matter.

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Seems like it would encourage it, to me. :-/

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I work at a small business that is funded based on annual memberships and offer a mix of free public content and paywalled, more expert content. We offer alternatives to the annual membership but none are very popular.

I think the idea of an alternative to a subscription is more attractive than the reality.

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That is probably good for the casual user - but economically it would generate less revenue. Ben Thompson does a great deep dive on bundling https://stratechery.com/2017/the-great-unbundling/

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I thought the company Scroll was a great idea. Like Spotify for the open web - pay every site you visit a fraction of your monthly subscription. Unfortunately they went belly up after a year.

https://www.theverge.com/2020/1/28/21111865/scroll-ad-free-website-subscription-launches

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They do. The model for several newspapers and magazines is that the first few articles per month are free, and then there's a paywall after that. If you find yourself repeatedly hitting the paywall, that's a motivation to subscribe.

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The past few places I've lived have had free independent weeklies that specialize in the local music and arts, but also bundle some mix of more general interest local news and editorial.

I think one way they do it is with a very small, low-paid staff. This blog is a good example of the scale. Imagine MY hiring a DC music beat writer, and ad-sales guy and bundling up all his weekly content with a more local bent and I think you get a similar output.

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Even at Slow Boring the roles of copy editor and researcher were merged into a single position after Claire and I left

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author

Heyo don't put the blame on me now 🙃

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I'm assuming that the new person has the talent and efficiency to do what once took two people to do? 😁

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author

Nope, the real difference is that I'm just full time!

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Availability is a talent

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You didnt leave if you spend all day in the comments...

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I walk among the people now

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I for one appreciate that you have dedicated more of your time to the posting of takes.

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founding

Where does Will Stancil fall on this spectrum?

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Freddie has some funny shit to say about the guy

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But weren’t you a combination of Ben and Maya to some extent, Milan?

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Jan 30Liked by Ben Krauss

I think a big part of the problem is that local news is really boring. You read it if you don’t have any options but it is hard to compete for attention with hot button national issues let alone with social media and other entertainment. It used to be cheaper to produce and so you got it as filler which and it turns out to be good when people are forced to eat their “broccoli”.

Indeed there are parallels with this information diet and our super surplus of highly tasty and satiety real foods today. We have produced “better” products than is good for us. See also, bowling alone issues.

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I think this is one of those things that’s true right up till it’s not. I mean like I wouldn’t think school board politics would be very interesting and yet we have moms 4 Liberty. We have people who think a Ruby Bridges biography is way too racially progressive for their school as a semi national movement.

All the National news with its brimming culture war have their local instances but like it’s up to some entrepreneurial person to get it noticed and make a fuss about it.

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Except it makes sense. People's ability to invest in their interests have become much more targeted and specific. So you have people get really into wine, LARPing, video games, board games, British royalty, Korean pop, Bollywood, etc. There are now the resources to go really deep into people's preferred interest which also enables them to avoid other things that are less interesting to them.

So for people who are REALLY into school boards, they can get into it. But for everyone else who finds it boring, they can focus on their own niche. Specialization is like fire, powerful and dangerous.

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This seems to be pretty good news for something like a substack or other small overhead business model and pretty bad news for keeping a huge overhead for a generalist publication. I would be more interested in having local government substacks for ~100 dollars a year or whatever than try to revive the business model of the Tribune company.

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I agree, with the exception that getting 10k subscribers out of 300 million is much easier than getting 10k subscribers out of a much smaller population. In theory its more relevant to locals, but advertising a substack is much harder than advertising a newspaper - if for no other reason than most people know what a newspaper is and I'm not sure most people know what a "substack" is.

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I've help with charity fundraising before ... it is almost always much easier to find a few people willing to write a $10k check, than 100 people writing $100 checks. And it isn't just linear function of dealing with more people. The interactions often require just as much convincing and cajoling for the lower amounts ... often even more effort!

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I think they’re mostly motivated by quasi-pornographic/ideological literature. Of course, though, nutpicking is just so easy.

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Jan 30·edited Jan 30

If criticizing people speaking giving prepared remarks, from your stage at your event qualifies as nutpicking well I think we have a profound disagreement about what’s entailed by that term.

It wasn’t something some rando said even extermeperaneously at a pattern it was part of the official program and they’ve had many years to distance themselves from it and say no no we mean books like Gender Queer not books with such extremely divisive lines such as, and I quote “Black people and white people can be friends.” I happened to teach this curriculum and it’s hot garbage but it’s not racialist at all it’s very much in line with the traditional understanding of racism as about personal animus.

Like they put this person on their own stage, and stand by their remarks so I’m skeptical of the view that as a movement it is limited to more extreme content. It’s not somebody’s TikTok or X post gone viral.

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A representative of Moms 4 Liberty has explicitly stated that she opposes the statement or concept that "Black people and white people can be friends"?

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A Google search suggests that statement is part of a sentence that appears in the book, "Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story” by Ruby Bridges, and that Moms for Liberty has challenged an elementary school curriculum unit called “Civil Rights Heroes,” which includes the Ruby Bridges book. This Daily Kos story, however, specifically states that the complaint filed by Moms for Liberty *didn't* mention that quote: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2021/12/1/2066974/-Critical-race-theory-Nah-these-racists-want-to-ban-kids-books-about-the-civil-rights-movement

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Not the quote directly but they attacked a second grade curriculum containing this book.

https://youtu.be/Di9wLBofRV4?feature=shared

And this one https://youtu.be/MRfy2xs8Xpg?feature=sharedp which are both very much not any kind of modernist interpretation of racism. It is very literally a direct quotation of one of the two books and is representative of how the book dealt racism. In a speech at a convention I saw on You tube the mother was concerned that it asked children how they would feel if they were Ruby.

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Hence "nutpicking", or finding the single least sympathetic individual within a group and making them the representative of said group.

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Local news is not boring... on television. It's a popular product even now. But the signal to noise ratio is low there.

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I don't often watch the local news, but when I do, I'm shocked by how little is there.

"The median length of a story with video on local television, according to PEJ’s detailed studies of the medium, is 41 seconds, and some critics have complained this is too short. The median length of a network TV news package was 2 minutes and 23 seconds."

https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/2012/07/16/video-length/

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And it's mostly inane "live reporting" from in front of the police station, breathlessly telling the audience that the cops are looking for the perp of a string of burglaries or something. Local TV news is right at the bottom of the barrel of journalism. But people do still watch it and don't think it is boring.

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Also there is a (small) subsidy to local print journalism. These local stations all have websites with local articles and horrible syndication and click-bait content. But they do have these longer-form articles. I wonder if there is a way to leverage that more.

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"If it bleads it leads". You're basically describing why local news has a "conservative" bias and why Americans estimates of crime is usually wildly higher than in reality (if I'm not mistaken even within their own cities, Americans will say their neighborhoods are safe but other neighborhoods are where are the "bad stuff" happens).

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Reminder, if we are talking about gun control America is a horribly violent country, the shame of the developed world. But if we're talking about normal Americans being worried about the murder in their neighborhood, they're just whining Karens who don't understand how safe they really are. Now back to discussing why news is failing in America!

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founding

It’s both true that American violent crime rates are higher than those in many comparable countries, but not constantly rising the way that many people always seem to think they are.

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I think people's concerns about crime have a lot more to do with "does my government care about protecting me from crime" than "how much crime is there, objectively, and what is the crime rate's time derivative?" The reason the Democrats get hammered on the issue is because it is very difficult for a Democratic politician to honestly signal a willingness to use state power to keep law-abiding individuals safe. Their brand is throwing the book at Daniel Penny while releasing armed robbers on a signature bond.

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I don't know who Daniel Penny is, but I think you're describing the situation the past few years. But people have thought crime rates were increasing for my entire life, even though they were decreasing for the majority of my life. That's not about Democrats or Republicans - that's about people having inaccurate perceptions of crime.

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Hence my first sentence. I am saying that inaccurate perceptions of crime are not first-order responsible for the fact that the Republicans win votes due to crime-panic even when crime rates are in fact going down. Accurate perceptions of the two sides' priorities when it comes to crime are.

Or in other words: stuff like "they want to end cash bail" is so effective in attack ads against Democrats because it points out that the Democrats spend (publicly) way more time and energy caring about protecting criminals from non-criminals than the other way around. That attitude goes over like a lead balloon among non-ideologues in much the same way that DeSantis' hardline anti-abortion stance does.

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How do we balance the fact that Americans estimate of crime is usually wildly higher than in reality, and also that violent crime in America is also an extreme outlier relative to the rest of the developed world?

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By acknowledging that most of the crime is concentrated in areas the median American doesn't go, and committed by people the median American doesn't interact with. That's how people can be "objectively" right that our homicide rates are terrible, and that most Americans are "actually" quite safe and unlikely to be he victim of a crime, so they shouldn't be so worried and convinced that their neighborhoods are under siege.

If you remove the "outliers," then America looks about as safe and peaceful as you would expect from other parts of the developed world. But, it should be a national tragedy that "large" swaths of the country are "outliers" like this. I think it's also tragic that the laws and policies of the past 75 years encouraged exactly this sort of segregation into the "Haves" and Have-nots" based on the neighborhoods people can afford to live or move to.

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"If you remove the "outliers," then America looks about as safe and peaceful as you would expect from other parts of the developed world."

I don't think this is accurate. If you remove American "outliers" then you would need to remove outliers from other comparable countries, and once again you see a significant separation occur.

Rural areas in the US are more dangerous than rural areas in other developed countries, uban cities are more dangerous than urban cities in other developed countries, etc.

All that being said, I agree with your underlying point about the outlier areas in the US being a national tragedy.

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Jan 31·edited Jan 31

The US has a much wider variance in the distribution of violence though. So if you remove the worst urban areas from both the US and peer comparisons the US only comes across as 2x worse, rather than 5-10x. It shows how severe the "violence gini coefficient" really is within the US.

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varies by zip code by orders of magnitude

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IMO the best local government news coverage is usually in the alt-weekly for most cities (not so for Seattle bc the ST is still locally-owned by its founders, but that's a huge rarity these days). The Memphis Flyer was free once-a-week but it had pages written by guys who would attend every city government meeting and report the dirt from those, but I'm sure I was one of only a few who read it

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It's so damn harmful. In Memphis something happens and the local news always has to interview the most ignorant and ratchet person in the neighborhood! it takes blaxploitation to a whole new level! it's worst when it's a murder, but here's a funny one ("we all gon' die anyway")

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPgED_gTzSE

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Random thought: I wonder to what extent the widespread adoption of term limits in state and local governments has contributed to making local political news less interesting to most people? I.e., if you live in a town where Mayor Jones can keep getting re-elected for the next 40 years, are you more motivated to pay attention to news coverage of local politics than if Mayor Jones is going to automatically be barred from running for mayor after no more than 8 years?

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I think this is absolutely true. Term limits are the reason that I know that Willie Brown is the reason the California legislature has term limits, but I can't name the current speaker of the California assembly. I can also name many of my local politicians but not what positions they currently hold, because they swap to another whenever they get termed out of one.

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I think local politics feel boring if you're not actually paying attention. Here in Chicago the local politics are an endless source of... entertainment? despair? I'm not sure, but they're certainly not boring if you actually bother following along. Most people I know just have no interest because knowing a lot about local politics doesn't make them sound erudite the way listing off senators does.

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I think Axios Local has a good take on this. Instead of broccoli you get a daily multivitamin. They publish 5 mini stories each day instead of a full paper. Which is honestly about how much noteworthy stuff happens in a city. “Mayor says we should fix potholes” only needs a paragraph or two.

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One way you could increase coverage of local news is bundling. Have a large reputable written news organization hire local correspondents in the big cities across America and then sell access to WaPo or NYT local that gives you the ability to read their local coverage from any city.

This is a much more compelling value proposition than subscribing to a local paper. Most of us now have connections to multiple locations -- we went to college in one city, grew up in another and have family in a third. Without this kind of bundling I have to pay, say, $5/month to have access to local news in just one of those cities. With bundling I can pay the same amount and get access to local news across the country (and often there will be art, pop culture or some weird event stories of interest in cities I don't even have a connection with.

Right now local news is basically like a cable company trying to sell access to channels a la carte. Each channel has to charge alot to fund it's content from the few subscriptions it gets and you end up with few profitable channels. You bundle the channels and the value proposition is compelling for lots of viewers and everyone wins.

(I know it's counterintuitive that consumers are made better off by removing their choices ...I didn't believe it myself until I tried working through some example math).

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Substack is perfect for local content. Why pay for copy editors, printers, and ad sellers when all that has become useless crap? Ten thousand subscribers can support a substsck with 3 or 4 journeyman level writers. Most cities have 10,000 people who will pay $8/month for local news.

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Great for opinion not so great for news. No one author can cover everything and subscribing to enough authors to get anything like relatively complete local news coverage/analysis is financially unworkable.

Substack (unless they add bundling) works on a value proposition where a small number of people who get really high value out of most things an author creates support the author. News (even local news) works on a model where very large numbers of people get a little value from having access to the content produced by many journalists.

Worse, because of that the cost of personally vetting the reliability gets out of hand. I read the NYT and trust them to make sure reporters do basic fact checking. I couldn't remember all those reporter's names to tell them apart from crackpots if I wanted to.

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Jan 30Liked by Ben Krauss

A former journalist who lives in my town has in fact started a substack trying to be hyper-local! We'll see how it works out for him. I don't think it is a full-time job (or paycheck), but a decent side hustle given he likes to keep up with town news anyhow.

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What's the Substack if you don't mind me asking?

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My town is small enough that I don't want to reveal my location that precisely!

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Also see what it did to Hersh. He was a good journalist when he had editors that held his feet to the fire. Moving to substack turned him into a crackpot willing to repeat lies (likely from Russian agents). His skill is sensing something fishy (and there was just not what he said it was) cultivating sources by forming relationships not doubting them.

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I think a fair number of people would say Hersh was a crackpot long before moving to Substack. Wasn't he pushing 9/11 conspiracy theories at one point?

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Yes and that OBL was actually machine-gunned by Pakistani intelligence or whatever it was.

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This was the big one I was thinking of. I actually remember where I was when I read it and I was extremely confused about what was going on with him and double checked if he was who I thought he was.

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Yes, I should have been more specific. It turned his supposed journalistic output crackpotty. He's personally been kinda crackpotty for awhile but that's exactly why having editors matters so much -- the talent for developing a source and judging what's likely true don't always go together (probably often the opposite).

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Mom, there are Russian agents under the bed!

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Yeah I was going to come here and say that maybe Substack could help. Recruit a strong, trustworthy local journalist to start it up, and interested people can fund it. Somebody to cover local government, somebody to cover local business, somebody to cover high school and local college sports, etc.

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Jan 30Liked by Ben Krauss

DC Crime Facts, which I learned about here, is a good example of this. I'm not sure what the pseudonymous writer's paying job is, but the newsletter is free (and excellent).

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There are a few cities that now have a local substack, one of the first (and the one that's been franchising the model to other cities) is Manchester Mill: https://manchestermill.co.uk/

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The thing about bundling is that, mathematically, it will involve one entity subsidizing another.

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Not necessarily. Ben Thompson has written extensively on the conditions where bundling can increase benefits for both consumers and producers, and he has an entire section of newsletter archive dedicated to it, https://stratechery.com/concept/business-models/bundling-and-unbundling/

For a concise example in the context of the cable bundle, I'd recommend Chris Dixon's "How bundling benefits sellers and buyers", https://cdixon.org/2012/07/08/how-bundling-benefits-sellers-and-buyers

Building on that example, Thompson elaborates on how the internet has broken that model in legacy media while recreating it in streaming services like Spotify in his article, "The Great Unbundling", https://stratechery.com/2017/the-great-unbundling/

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I think it's hard to apply that bundling model to local news though.

In the example of bundling sports and history with ESPN and the History channel, the sports fan values sports more than history, but they value history SOME.

If I bought local news that comes bundled with other local news I don't care about, that isn't adding value. As a sports fan I might want to watch some documentaries occasionally, but as a Cleveland resident I'd never be like "oh sweet, the state fair is coming to Sacramento!"

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If only the history channel were about history lol

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Yep. The historical bundle was the local newspaper that included national news, sports, classified, etc. in addition to the local news. Following the "Great Unbundling" of the last two decades, consumers have better and cheaper options for each part of the newspaper bundle, which leaves local news lacking in a business model.

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That was my reaction when I first heard this idea but it turns out to be false. When you work it out the reason it works is because people often get a small but non-zero value from access to many sources but unless you're an airline you usually have to pick one price everyone (both ppl who just get a bit of value and those who get alot) pays.

For instance, with cable channels maybe I love the discovery channel and I'd pay $10/month for it but there are 99 other channels that occasionally have something I like on so I'd pay maybe 9c/month to have access to each of them. Suppose there are 10,000 customers each of whom have their own (different) favorite $10 channel (distributed uniformly) and for whom the others are worth only 9c a month.

Now let's say the channels are offered a la carte. Each channel sets a price. If they pick $10 they get 100 subscribers (the ppl w/ that as their favorite) and get $1000/month. Lowering their prices doesn't pick up new subscribers until they hit the 9c price point because it's only worth 10c to everyone else. At the 9c price point they get 10k subscribers and earn $900/momth. So the a la carte price ends up being $10 a month for each channel and everyone gets one channel.

If instead the cable company offers a 100 channel bundle for $15/month then all of us sign up because we get $10 + 99*.09 worth of value ... about $19. If that fee is shared out equally then each channel gets $15,000 /month.

So literally every single individual and supplier in that market was made better. So it's not subsidizing in the usual sense. Sure it's not likely that every local affiliate is literally exactly equally situated as in my example but not hard for no one to be worse off than w/o bundling.

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But the thing about local news is that it's local. I get my local news with my cable package, but if I got EVERYONE's local news that would not add value to my cable package.

I get your concept. I have live tv (technically youtube tv) mostly for sports, but hey if something piques my interest on HGTV I now get a benefit and HGTV gets extra eyeballs.

But there just aren't scenarios where I get a value add by checking out some local news that isn't where I live. On the rare occasion something becomes worthy of interest, it'll get picked up by national news.

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Well you certainly aren't hurt by having access to other local news -- it doesn't take much effort to set your address to indicate your primary feed. Certainly it's not as important to me as local news where I live and I don't follow all the stories there.

And maybe it's not something you want but I frequently find myself reading local stories from other locations when they are

1) some crazy human interest story from some random city. Local dog saves cat from drowning.

2) Are 'local news' in that they cover some local artist or fashion trend or event where I find the subject interesting.

3) Cover some event that informs me about problems facing government/transit (Philly is building a new mass transit system and it's very cheap or expensive) or are just shocking: for instance Chicago's scandal selling rights to ticketing cars.

4) Cover local news where I went to college, used to live or where family and friends live.

5) Give local background to a story with national importance. For instance when Puerto Rico went bancrupt learning about what's going on with their economy or learning background about how Texas's energy market worked re: big freeze or what it's like to live in the really poor parts of Appalachia or the fracking bomb towns. The national news gives the basic story but not always the local background.

6) Relate to something someone mentions in a discussion on substack or Facebook.

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But what do you gain out of that subscription?

I want my local news for the boring parts of local news. If there's a crazy "dog saves cat" moment somewhere, that'll turn up on social media. If there's an interesting local angle on an artist I care about, it'll turn up on a subreddit I follow. All of those other examples are situations where the boring local stuff got interesting enough that it turned into national news.

The reason I want my local news is to get that school board meeting report. If the local news isn't doing that, then I don't really need it. And if other places local news ARE covering their school board then I don't really need them.

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This is one area where I am bullish on AI-assisted news. An AI processing the school-board recording transcript could produce an ok, but not great summary and maybe raise a flag for human review across a large number of districts monitored by humans. It wouldn't be _better_ than traditional beat reporting, but it certainly could be _much_ better than nothing. If it lowers the costs enough to support increased coverage, with human curation on top I think we can reap some of the benefits.

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What I get is being able to read those articles that would otherwise be paywalled for me.

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Not sure I follow this math (which may well mean I am missing something). If I would not buy a standalone product of “a bunch of ten cent channels” for ten bucks or even five, why would I prefer the bundled version to a $10 “just my channel” option?

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You would buy "a bunch of ten cent channels" for $5. Indeed for about $9 in these calculations. But they'd have to include the $10 channel in the bundle too - because your ten buck channel is everyone else's ten cent channel and each of those ten cent channels is someone's ten buck channel.

In the real world, the actual value of a channel to you varies, probably under a power law (eg you get 80% of the value from 20% of the channels), but the same principle applies.

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Helpful thanks. I guess if those facts about the distribution of preferences hold (I sports and Bob likes HGTV and so on) the math works out. From this we can conclude that you need that sort of audience preference set for the bundling win win math to hold (if we all or mostly really prefer sports, or national politics for that matter) we are back to subsidy math.

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Sports tends to be one of the few that doesn't work like this, as the audience tends to be highly correlated (ie people watch zero or near zero of the channel or they watch a lot and will pay a substantial amount). This is why sports channels are premium channels in Europe.

Note that the US cable system is very unusual by having very limited numbers of premium channels - most US premium channels are such because they want to avoid/minimise censorship, rather than because their viewership from programme to programme is highly correlated.

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Local news is the thing where all of us care a decent amount about one “local channel” and maybe a little bit about occasionally having access to other “local channels” (because we are traveling or because a friend lives there or because someone in Kalamazoo did something funny).

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Maybe think of a video game bundle. You want one game in the bundle bad enough to pay retail price but you still want all 10 games in the bundle just not enough to pay retail.

No bundle means you get one game for the retail price. In the bundle you get 10 games for a bit less than the cost of 2 of the games at retail.

The video game sellers participate because they get more total money (now each person spends almost 2x as much on games and it's no skin off their back if 10x more people have their game).

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I guess the implicit assumptions that my “full retail worth” game is different than the “full retail worth” preference of the other customers (and that there is good diversity of who wants which game a full retail price amount)?

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Yes: this is why channels that have a large audience that will pay significant money generally don't want to be in the bundle but prefer to be a premium channel - if 95% of your customers are paying ten cents but 5% would pay ten bucks, and there are 19 other channels that can all say the same, but each person would pay ten bucks for a different channel, then bundling is good for both the channels and the viewers. But if everyone agrees on which one is the $10 channel, then that channel can charge $10 and doesn't have to share with anyone, while the other channels sell a $1.90 bundle.

In practice, most channels fall into one or the other category - either a large well-correlated subscriber base and very little interest from anyone else (sports channels fit this very well) or moderate interest from nearly everyone and a small group of big fans ("entertainment" channels, ie ones that show scripted or reality TV shows fall into this, as do many channels that show films)

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I think you’re overestimating how many people have moved around a lot to completely different parts of the country and who still want to keep up to date on the other places they’ve lived.

Especially because even in your proposal, a small town or rural area wouldn’t get coverage, just the nearest major city.

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But would the typical consumer be willing to pay for, say, a Dallas paper rather than the NYT for their hit of national and global coverage and bench of opinion writers just to get bundled local coverage at a small discount? I am skeptical.

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No, but that's not what I'm suggesting. I'm suggesting the NYT or other major national paper open up local affiliates that *only* provide local coverage so you can buy NYT or NYT+local which gives u access to all the local coverage as well.

The ridiculous recovering of national news a bunch of times is pointless as the piece suggests.

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Why would they do this if consumers don’t care. That’s the whole point of the market being more competitive; you can’t waste money on stuff consumers do not value (and why would NYT want to if it doesn’t profit them).

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The tone of the Times would offend most provincials. It’s pretty off putting to

me, and I’m a pretty loyal Democrat.

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but but but...wordle

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I'm sure it would to some locals but my sense from living around the country is that the rough proportions of people who fall into various political categories varies but you still have plenty of NYT types in Dallas and Huntsville.

But yes, I wouldn't be surprised if the market wanted 3 different ideological products each with their own local affiliates much like TV news. Could do one more moderate one but I suspect there is benefit from being part of the same app/platform as people use for their national news just for convienience and discoverability.

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Their local reporters would be managed by a “locals” desk, that would be at least as different as their lifestyle and science sections.

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Also it would make a big difference to have a trusted media organization put this inside their app. Honestly, I end up unsubscribing from most media sources I find interesting because I realize I forget to ever go there. A single news app solves that problem and can use ML to recommend stories I might like while solving the issue of credibility for local media I might not be familiar with.

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I've switched most my "mainstream" news consumption to the Apple News app for this reason, which consolidates my primary interests, otherwise paywalled content from several providers bundled in the subscription, a few specific subscriptions where I can link my account (such as the Economist) and ML selected content. It could still use a ton of improvement, but has taken over as a superior experience to all the alternatives.

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Isn’t this idea just a service bureau like AP?

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Not really, they are primarily aimed at news organizations as their customers not the public. Indeed, they kinda do the opposite -- they sell national/international stories to many papers so they all can claim to have complete coverage of big events rather than bundling together local coverage so the consumer can read local stories from every town..

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If you look at the average newspaper for a city of 100k people, this is basically what has happened already. 90% of their coverage is now national and international news from wire services, with the other 10% created by a handful of local reporters. And they still seem to not have found a way to make that model profitable.

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But you only get access to one local paper for the subscription price. It's worth alot more to get access to local news in every city. Alternatively they could create a deal with local papers in other cities to give a local news pass.

Also they are wasting substantial amounts of money/effort on reprinting that national news - even just repackaging wire content is costly. Money they'd save by just partnering with a national paper as their local coverage in that city.

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Spot on. We've said it before in this space: it was only in the mid-20th century that newspapers became large revenue generators due to advertising. It wasn't the case before that and we're clearly on the path to rich entities using them as propaganda organs again.

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On the one hand, I think you're correct. On the other hand, where I see why there would be greater modern concern with that situation is: (1) in the 19th and early 20th Centuries even a relatively modestly sized community would have multiple local newspapers, so you could potentially read multiple "propaganda" takes on the same subject (you'll see references in novels, old movies, etc. to characters doing exactly that), but it's highly unlikely today that you could manage to have two such newspapers outside of NYC and a handful of other major cities, and (2) the vast majority of communities aren't going to be able to support even a single local propaganda-style newspaper.

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It's sad Memphis lost its second paper because it had the coolest name of any paper: the Press-Scimitar!

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I know a lot of journalists and it really is notable the amount of denial in the business. I suppose that is common in declining businesses. But in addition to the "billionaires can fund us forever" point, there's a lot of people convinced that because the private equity people are buying local papers that must mean owners are all secretly making a profit and they are just laying people off to make even more money. You can see comments of that sort in one of the threads Matt links to here.

I don't have any great answers here. But it probably doesn't help that so many journalists are in denial about what is happening.

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Unsure if it's a majority contigent of journalists with that viewpoint. Might just be one of those cases where the most vocal are the ones speaking out.

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the amount of journalists I saw complaining about that they got "nothing" out of private equity buying up Sports Illustrated from TIME back in 2018, while executives got "rich" was numerous... but what journalists "got" was their jobs for an additional 6 years of having their job subsidized at a outlet everyone knew was on its death bed.

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Yeah, the magazine industry has been decimated for going on a couple of decades now.

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Economist and New Yorker seem to be doing ok

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The Internet creates winner take all dynamics in all these areas. E.g., The New York Times is pretty much doing fine as well, despite the health of the newspaper industry. There's a limited amount that people will pay for content, and there will be a small number (or sometimes 1) prestige content provider that captures most of that. Everyone else is fighting for table scraps.

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I think there's also probably a feedback loop here.

Journalists are perpetually immiserated (correctly) by their decrepit, doomed professional space, so they just kind of assume that lots of other career paths are feeling the same way, and their pessimism and perspective shapes coverage (explicit in op-eds, and inevitably packaged implicitly into other coverage), increasingly diverging from how the other rank-and-file (be they blue-collar or PMC) see the world, leading to the latter gradually losing interest in the journalists' work product, ...

I mean, that's why I ended my subscription to Talking Points Memo, solid though a lot of their reporting is. I don't need that doom in my life, sorry.

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I find it incredible that a region of California/Los Angeles size and wealth can’t sustain an ambitious newspaper (similar to NYT, WaPo) when much smaller cities and countries can. What am I missing?

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The situation in LA is frustrating. It's gotten to the point that the NYT has better local (LA Area) news coverage than the LA Times. There are some true local local papers (LA Ist and Westside current) that seek to cover a smaller area and are decent. But at least one (Westside Current) has an ideological edge.

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Sounds like there's a market opening there for someone with money and determination

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That’s why the guy bought the Times, I thought!

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I live in the area and don't understand it either. There are tons of local issues to report on, but I don't tend to see a lot of great articles from them. I've read OC Register, SF Chronical, and Boston Globe + the Crimson when living in those cities, but have never really been able to get into a groove reading the LA Times.

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One of the nice things about Los Angeles is that the people here really don't care about politics, at any level. That's one reason the Bay area punches way above its weight in political representation, compared to LA County.

The occasional political scandal will get people to rouse themselves from their sleep and of course NIMBYs get energized when their particular neighborhood gets hit, but for the most part the beach and the tennis court beckon.

Given how politics is too much with us at the national level, I've come to appreciate this obliviousness.

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It's something I didn't recognize until I moved to Northern California. LA City and County politics are almost militantly non-political. Just avoid major scandal and people will leave you alone.

Having Boxer and Feinstein skewed things a bit but Newsom literally had to appoint Padilla to get a Los Angeles politician into a prominent statewide office (no offense to Insurance Commissioner Lara).

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I can't think of any Los Angeles resident elected to the senate in the last 50 years

Maybe I'll have to vote for Adam Schiff?

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Padilla got elected for his own term in 2022 (and the simultaneous special election).

The Cranston-Boxer slot stretched back to the '60s. Kuchel, Cranston's predecessor, was from Anaheim.

For the other slot, Tunney represented Riverside and Wilson represented San Diego. Seymour was appointed by Wilson and was from Anaheim but lost his only election to Feinstein. You'd have to go back to Murphy who was LA-based being an actor.

LA has had better luck with governors. Gray Davis, Deukmejian (Long Beach), Arnold, Reagan all won.

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Nice recap.

LA County has had much more success electing local residents to the House of Representatives, however. 😀

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Amazing coincidence! Lol

I technically grew up in the historical boundaries of Nixon's Congressional district (which was very large back then) but Yorba Linda can keep him.

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I will disagree there. Mike Bonin got a lot of westsiders to care about local politics recently. The level of local political engagement on city council elections near me has been striking of late.

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Near me, Mike Bonin definitely got lots of people to care about getting Mike Bonin out of office.

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I like Mike Bonin. My daughter interned for him and he was very nice to her. And in my heart I agree with his compassionate approach to the least among us.

But man did he misread the room. He barely missed being recalled and had he run again it would have been a wipeout.

The one thing that really exercises Angelenos is the homelessness issue, especially if it requires them to do something more than write a check. That's what got his constituents up in arms.

And boy do I get that. My own City Council rep, Katy Yaroslavsky, is putting a homeless facility just a couple hundred feet away from me at the end of my very pleasant SFH street. And did all my neighbors accept this placidly, acknowledging that we all have to participate in finding solutions to this crisis? No they did not. Oh my did they not. But props to them -- their level of vitriol, rage and hatred was actually matched by the energy of their political involvement and organizing. So: democracy in action. (Still almost certainly going to happen, so good for Katy for sticking it out.)

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And there's a lot of interest in the upcoming DA's race and replacing George Gascon.

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Along these lines, the LA Times over a decade ago employed a couple of reporters who did some of my favorite reporting on Pakistan at the time. That was great value-added for me in grad school, but I don't live in LA and wasn't going to pay for the LA Times. I have no idea where those reporters are now (especially since one of them has the same name as a celebrity and his name is hard to Google).

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I feel like ten or so years ago, the LA Times was making a run for it at being a second tier national paper, but I guess that niche didn’t work.

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Bosch complains about the fall of the LA Times in one of the recent books. The paper and its (fictional) writers featured prominently in earlier books.

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Read this article, skimmed it a few times, and I'm not sure what to immediately think, so I'll start by describing the news scene in Boise and see where this comment goes. We have our legacy paper that, while it's certainly gotten worse (the clickbaity headlines are a quick indication of this), it will still deliver good nuggets here and there. The real excellent publication that I talk about all the time is BoiseDev, a new upstart who runs a lean machine on diverse income sources to deliver the type of high level information on what's going on with development (their original beat) and the local and state government actions that gird that and other important things. There's also other specialty publications like the Idaho Press or IdahoEdNews that will deliver good coverage, and even one of the local TV stations (KTVB) will venture beyong typical local TV stuff. I don't feel like I live in a news desert at all, but who knows how much of an outlier this place is.

Or alternatively, how much of an outlier *I* am for seeking out this kind of information. I'm surprised Matt didn't talk much about the importance of the old bundling model, which is a fond topic of his--perhaps we can take for granted that we're all aware of this. But it seems like the lamented goal here is to get people that used to read the newspaper for stuff like sports, entertainment, weather, and classifieds to also peek over at stories deemed more important in the community. It's an unsolved puzzle that may remain so, but it also may be a challenge to ask ourselves how much attention the people in the past paid to things that didn't engage fun in them or benefited them personally.

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Also from the City of Trees.

We also have a startup local politics outlet, the Idaho Capital Sun, which is part of a nonprofit network of outlets called the States Newsroom. While I often find their coverage frustrating, it's also invaluable. Our local politics coverage had been buoyed by a handful of old-guard folks and the quality has declined significantly as they've left.

Our news ecosystem is really interesting, though. We've got the nonprofit Capital Sun, the startup BoiseDev, the foundation-funded Idaho EdNews, and the old guard Idaho Statesman and Idaho Press. The Capital Sun covers what their handful of reporters find interesting, while BoiseDev and EdNews do a great job in their specific bailiwick. However, there's a lot that goes on at City Hall and the Capitol that would have been covered in ye olde dayse that goes unremarked on now.

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I knew I'd leave something out, thanks.

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Washington bureaus of provincial papers have very little value. Their core function-- documenting how the local delegation voted-- is easily replaced by computers. Only a few, especially dorky readers will care to read their legislaturors’ speeches, but if they do, the Congressional Record is on line and has been for thirty years.

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Yeah I think this is a decent post but came here to say there are both real downsides to the old model or aspects of the old model that are well past their sell by date. You said Washington bureaus and I’ll raise you White House press corp. It’s supposed to be top of the food chain for any news org (sure it pays the most) but honest to god what an unnecessary relic. You’ll see periodic articles or stories about the President has had a press conference for X number of days. And my reaction is “so what?” As Matt has noted, these press conferences involve reporters trying to ask extremely elaborate “Tim Russert” esque gotchya questions that almost never reveal anything. Or some extremely partisans outlet trying to clearly get a 10 second clip to play ad naseum for 24 hours devoid of any context. Every so often you’ll get a President (or press secretary) to give an awkward answer and it’s treated as a “gaffe”/“story” when the more accurate interpretation is even the most polished speakers can stumble their words in an impromptu answer.

The decline in local coverage is a real problem (how much corruption is just going unchallenged right now) but (as is my continued message on a variety topics) let’s not get too rose tinted about “the good ole days”.

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Maybe this is vibes, but it *feels* like rich right-wing people are willing to lose money on media projects, and rich left-wing people are not. Why is there no center-left Sinclair?

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My guess is the the recipient of rich leftwing money is the nonprofit industrial complex.

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And universities!

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Do universities actually have a particularly left wing donor base? I thought they were more like operas and symphonies and art museums, that get just as much Koch as Soros money.

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My guess would be that historically that was true, but I do wonder if that's been shifting in the last few years given increasingly negative coverage about universities on Fox and other conservative media outlets.

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I somewhat think the T. Boone Pickenses of the world have an outsized impact and don't really care about that noise. Fox chum is for the $200-400k car dealership boat parade set, and they were never big university donors (but the athletic department....!)

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It certainly keeps the spouses of a certain social strata employed in executive positions....

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Maybe we should make a push for more nonprofit journalism sources. Feels like if the goal of news is to be reasonably unbiased, then running a for profit enterprise under the hand of Bezos et al might be at cross purposes anyway.

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ProPublica is pretty good most of the time

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For all the good it does.

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Isn’t this actually pbs and npr? Like the foundations that get namedropped on newshour are solidly left wing just as a for instance. NPR especially does do a reasonable amount of localism.

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Is Sinclair a money loser? Would have thought there was still a lot of money in local TV.

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Maybe the NYT needs to raise some money from VC's and start gobbling up some local television stations.

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I believe there used to be FCC restrictions on combined ownership of daily newspapers and local television stations, but in the back of my head I also think that's been repealed or loosened.

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No, they made 2.6B in net income in their last reported fiscal year, and although losing money in the two previous years, they've generally been profitable throughout the last decade, https://stockanalysis.com/stocks/sbgi/financials/

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Be careful, you're dangerously close to summoning a brigade of right wing commenters chanting 'Soros! Soros! Soros!'

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I mean, that's a valid left-wing equivalent to Sinclair.

They go about it in different ways, but it is pretty similar (though opposed) goal structure overall.

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Not really, as far as I know, Sinclair has always been a business run primarily for profit.

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Soros is great. Has a space laser and everything!

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Is Bezos right wing? I don’t have that impression. I think he is neither right nor left wing, but I guess I don’t know.

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And yet the biggest conservative media boogeyman is able to run profitable right-wing publications in basically every English-speaking country. There is no center-left Sinclair or Fox News because the audience isn't buying what "center-left" journalists want to sell.

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After forty years of maintaining a subscription to the LA Times I reluctantly ended it recently. I wished I didn't have to and would have preferred to continue supporting a needed local institution. But I just got fed up with a newspaper that was clearly deteriorating.

It wasn't just staff cuts, the shrinkage of the paper and the disappearance of previously standard features. It was also some pretty bad choices. The arts and entertainment section was given over to writers with clear ideological agendas who decided that was more important than a focus on entertainment per se. They gutted the sports section, ripping all the kinds of things that are nice to have in one single place -- standings, box scores, even game scores! Instead, we got big splashy pictures and interminable "features" on whatever. Even the comics section! They dropped funny, clever strips and replaced them with the most bargain basement crap. And the price for this deteriorating product kept skyrocketing to absurd levels.

They just lost their way. It's sad because we need a good newspaper. But I decided that continuing to subsidize them would send the wrong message. We need some creative destruction.

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My wife maintains our sub but online only since we aren't in the area. I don't use it for the stuff I used to growing up (comics, league standings, etc.) but I could imagine reducing these would make the physical copy much worse than the digital one.

It's also just local enough to connect us to home as opposed to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune that our families use as a truly local paper. But, indeed, the Times can't sustain itself just catering to the LA diaspora.

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I’ve got to review my subscription to the LAT. I read it to keep up with local stuff now that I’m on the east coast but I find that it’s gotten pretty skimpy even on things where they should have an advantage like the various big league sports

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There's usual a fair amount of Dodger content but that's heavily covered everywhere. But they are the primary source for stories like the gondola that involve the stadium (although I hate seeing McCourt's name).

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It seems BLINDINGLY obvious to me that Pearlman meant "the only way to have a chance at survival in the industry is by going above and beyond," not "if you make yourself indispensable you are guaranteed to never be a victim of the industry," because not even the dumbest person in the world would believe the latter. Anyone freaking out about his comments are willfully misreading just so they can have another target to serve as an outlet for their anger and frustration.

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They might also be misinterpreting “this will help you save your job” as “this is the morally good thing for you to do”.

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I think one major problem for local news is there is genuinely a lot less to write about these days if you are interested in important local issues. Part of this is just that the demand shifts make it so that certain kind of stories get no viewership -- even a really juicy scandal about the police department or something is only going to get you so much readership before your lunch gets eaten by a national outlet deciding that particular story is worth repeating.

But I think part of it is literally that the quantity of events readers can parse is declining. With the decline of civil society in all its forms, that means that the majority of the time Americans are in a narrative relationship only with national events. They are not part of any organizations that might be in the news and thus create interest. They are not familiar with local politicians (who might be in the news and etc.).

All that's left is very simple things like "where should you get drinks/food", "what kind of stores and restaurants are supposed to open soon", and of course local fights over whether or not some building or other should be allowed, and those things do not require a newspaper to cover. In almost any city in America there are a handful of local instagram/tiktok people who will do at the very least the first two and sometimes even the third.

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I think you kind of buried the lede here ;^) re "decline of civil society in all its forms." This is, IMO, a huge problem across many dimensions, including but not limited to local news. Evil Socrates' comparison of the current "news" landscape to the highly processed food landscape is apt.

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"Liked" because I agree that it's probably a major contributing factor; not sure it's necessarily a "problem," so much as it just is how things now are.

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Fair enough! But I see the current level of dysfunctionality in governance and public discourse as being related to this phenomenon.

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Are people in Baltimore better informed about international news? Are people in Philadelphia reading more movie criticism? It's certainly possible to be way better informed today than 30 years ago, but having some international news and some movie criticism and some local news altogether in the same publication that had the sports scores and the classifieds very plausibly led to people being better informed overall than when they get all that information via Google and Facebook.

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We got the Seattle Times for 30y and never once read movie critics or classifieds. That’s the issue, people subscribed for different reasons and newspapers served all due to everyone being low-information pre digital.

It’s like with TV - people don’t want to pay for what they won’t use, is live news deterioration also bad? I don’t think so.

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