We Need Wide News

Bloomington, Indiana, my new hometown

How do people get news where you live? How do they remember it?

For most of the industrial age, which is still with us, newspapers answered both those questions—and did so better than any other medium or civic institution. Newspapers were required reading, delivered daily to doorsteps, and sold from places all around town. Old copies also accumulated in libraries and other archives, either as bound volumes or in microfilm reels and microfiche cards. News also came from radio and TV stations, though both did far less archiving, and none were as broad and deep in what they covered and how. Newspapers alone produced deep news.

And wide news as well. Local and regional papers covered politics, government, crises, disasters, sports, fashion, travel, business, religion, births, deaths, schools, and happenings of all kinds. They had reporters assigned across all their sections. No other medium could go as wide.

After the Internet showed up in the mid-’90s, however, people also began getting news from each other, through email, blogs, texting, online-only publications, and social media. To keep up and participate, newspapers, magazines, and other legacy print media built websites and began to publish online. Broadcast media began to stream online too. But the encompassing trend was the digitization of everything and everyone. Consumers became producers. Every person with a computer or a phone was equipped to become a reporter, a photographer, a videographer, or a podcaster. (In the 24 September 2004 issue of IT Garage, I reported that a Google search for podcasts got 24 results. Today it gets 3,84 billion.)

In the midst of all this, the local and regional newspaper business collapsed. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post found ways to survive and continue to thrive. Many other major papers are getting along but none are what they were. Nor can they be. Today most local papers are gone or shrunk to tiny fractions of their former selves.  Countless local commercial radio stations are now owned by national chains, fed “content” from elsewhere, and maintain minimized or absent local staff. Public radio has survived mostly because it learned long ago how to thrive on listener contributions, bequests, and institutional support. TV news is still alive, but also competing with millions of other sources of video content. None of its coverage is as wide as newspapers were in their long prime.

Another reason for the decline of local news media is economic. Craigslist and its imitaters killed newspapers’ classified sections, which had been a big source of income. Advertisers abandoned the practice of targeting whole populations interested in sports, business, fashion, entertainment, and other subjects. With digital media, advertisers can target tracked individuals. As I put it in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff, “Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.” That replica cares not a whit for supporting journalism of any kind.

Eyeballs and eardrums were also pulled toward direct response marketing by algorithms rigged to increase engagement. A collateral effect was pulling individual interests into affinity groups that grew tribal as they became echo chambers favoring the voices that excelled at eliciting emotional responses. Naturally, media specialized for feeding tribal interests emerged, obsolescing media that worked to cross partisan divides—such as old-fashioned newspapers. (In the old days, papers with a bend to the left or the right isolated partisanship to their opinion pages.) Talk radio and cable news became entirely partisan operations.

So, by the time Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) said “Facts don’t matter. What matters is how much we hate the person talking” (March 13, 2022), what Yeats poetized in The Second Coming seemed fulfilled:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

And yet, as James Fallows told Joyce and me a couple of months ago, if you talk to people in small towns about anything but politics, they’re just fine. Moreover, they still work together and get things done. (Jim and Deb gained this wisdom while researching their book and movie, both titled Our Towns.)

Towns do have their fault lines, but people everywhere are held together by their natural need for the conveniences that arise out of shared necessity—for markets, medical help, education, public spaces, and each other. They also need good information about what’s going on where they live. By good I mean the kind of information they used to get before newspapers—and the daily ceremony of innocence newspapers provided—were obsolesced by the Internet.

Back in the mid-’00s, the idea of “citizen journalism” (which went by other labels) first showed up in the writings of Dan Gillmor, J.D. Lasica, Dave Winer, Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen, myself, and others. All of us were also concerned about the decline of newspapers. So, in January 2007, after The New York Times sold the Santa Barbara News-Press to a billionaire who fired the staff and made the paper a vehicle for her personal interests, the Center for Information Technology and Society (CITS) at UC Santa Barbara convened a charrette to discuss the future of local newspapers. The title was “Newspaper 2.0.” It was led by yours truly, then (and still) a fellow of the Center. Some of the people mentioned earlier in this paragraph were there, along with exiled News-Press staffers, educators, and other local media, including “place blogs” that were also daily newsletters. Here is a photo series from the event, and the wiki we put together as well. I don’t know to what extent that gathering helped enlarge the degree to which other media made up for the failure of the News-Press (which finally filed for bankruptcy this summer, after a decade and a half of irrelevance). I do know that Santa Barbara now rich with news sources.

Meanwhile, my full attention is here in Bloomington, Indiana. Our local newspaper, the Herald-Times, is still alive and kicking, but not what it was when giant rolls of paper were delivered by train car weekly to the back of the paper’s building at 1900 South Walnut Street, and it was the source of wide news for the town and the region.

Now it’s e pluribus unum time. There are many other media in town, covering many topics, and I’m not yet clear on how much they comprise a news commons. But, as a visiting scholar (along with Joyce) at Indiana University’s Ostrom Workshop, which is all about studying commons, I want to see if our collection of local news media can become an example of wide news at work, whether we call it a commons or not. From my current notes, here is a quick, partial, and linky list of local media—

Periodicals (including newsletters and websites):


  • WFHB (has local news and podcasts)
  • WFIU (has local news and podcasts)
  • WIUX (IU student station, has local stuff)
  • WGCL (legacy local radio, AM & FM)
  • WBWB (B97) (pop music, has local news, sister of WHCC)
  • WTTS (legacy Tarzian FM music station, broadcasting from Trafalgar, on the south side of Indianapolis, with a popular local translator of its HD2 channel called Rock96 The Quarry)
  • WHCC (local country station, has some local news, sister of WBWB)
  • WCLS (local album rock station, has a calendar)



Indiana University

Civic Institutions:

So my idea is to hold a charrette like the one we had in Santa Barbara, to see how those interested in making wide news better can get along. No rush. I just want to put the idea out there and see what happens.

I think one thing that will help is that nobody is trying to do it all anymore. But everybody brings something to the table. Metaphorically speaking, I’d like to put the table there.

Thoughts and ideas are invited. So are corrections and improvements to the above. I see this post, like pretty much everything I write online, as a public draft.

My email is doc at searls dot com.

I shot the photo above on a flight from Indianapolis to Houston after giving this lecture at IU. Here is a whole series on Bloomington from that flight. And here is the rest of the flight as well. All the photos in both are Creative Commons licensed to encourage use and reuse, by anybody. I have about 60,000 photos such as these published online here, and another 5,000 here, all ready for anyone to put in a news story. I bring this up because public photography is one of my small contributions to wide news everywhere. You can see results in countless news stories and at Wikimedia Commons, where photos in Wikipedia come from. I put none of those where they are. Others found them and put them to use.

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8 Responses to We Need Wide News

  1. Hanan Cohen says:

    not related. or maybe?

    I remember that when you were here in Israel, I asked you about the meaning of “home” to Americans and we talked about it.

    It was strange to me that you wrote here “my new hometown”.

    • Doc Searls says:

      It is strange. To be clear, I also meant it literally. We have a home in Bloomington now. We also work here, as visiting scholars at the university. But we also still live in Santa Barbara. That’s where we vote and pay taxes. Home for me is also New York, where I grew up and where we still share an apartment. And Boston, which we lived near for six years. And Los Angeles, which is Joyce’s original home town, and where we also spend a lot of time. (All of this is much less fancy than it seems. We’re just strange about the way we live.)

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  3. Dave Taht says:

    Craigslist in my mind was the biggest killer of newspapers.

    When newspapers went online, my favorite feature was the comment section.

    We used to sit at the tv and watch the same show together. When I was a kid we had new language, jokes, and thoughts in common from cartoons on saturdays, and church on sundays, to discuss the week following.

    As for town news, you do get it from each other, still, but we too rarely spend time with others, especially since covid. I find myself missing sports, and church, and schools. I rejoice at a poster for a local band, or event, also, as information that would not reach me via any other means.

    • Doc Searls says:

      And Craig Newmark is now one of the biggest benefactors of journalism schools and related efforts.

      To be fair, if Craiglist hadn’t come along, Facebook Marketplace would have done the job anyway. Selling your stuff online is just so much easier.

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