ESSAY- Little papers: Will they become the surviving cockroaches?

You wonder if they saw it coming– tyrannosaurs and pterodactyls and whatever, lumbering around, scarfing down ginkgo trees or each other, when one of them, glancing skyward, says, "Hey, do you see something up there?" And before the poor bastard next to him can come back with so much as a "Huh?" Whomp! the asteroid slams into planet Earth.

And isn't that pretty much what happened to the newspaper business? I'm talking about your father's newspaper: the dailies that have been part of the landscape for generations. 

What with the Internet, the 24-hour news cycle, and journalism directed by implacable stockholders, this particular asteroid has been rocketing toward the newspaper bidness for years. And it seems to me that they scarcely even bothered to look up from their piles of press releases and wire service reports as it was about to knock them on their keisters.

And now, like the dinosaurs beholding their suddenly dust-darkened sky, they're muttering, "Oh, we are so screwed..."

The radical change in their environment spelled the end for dinosaurs, but the whole thing worked out nicely for birds, who, apparently, had what it takes to be more nimble in negotiating the altered landscape, and have flourished ever since. 

It's not hard to imagine the proto-ducks and proto-chickens– which are said by some scientists to have lived alongside the dinosaurs– getting little respect from their reptilian neighbors, as they were either ignored or gobbled up. 

(And whether some birds evolved from dinosaurs or not– well, I'm just not going there.)

This relationship calls to mind the way locally-owned newspapers were treated, as dailies such as The Charlottesville Daily Progress, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and The Boston Globe were snapped up by media conglomerates. 

Incorporation into these goliaths brought strength, superiority, and a more secure position to these newspapers, thanks to economies of scale allowing them access to lowered costs for newsprint and ink, and with pooled resources allowing them to, say, share a political reporter with another newspaper. 

Plus, as part of publicly-held corporations, they were players on Wall Street, living out the American dream on a national stage.

Ah, but then there were the small, locally-owned newspapers that were either left out of the acquisition spree, or actively resisted it.  

I remember Charlottesville's C-Ville Review back in the early ‘90s: edgy, irreverent, and totally about Charlottesville.  Surely not a threat to The Daily Progress, with its array of international, national, and local news.  After all, the C-ville was run by a few kids fresh out of college, lampooning the locals. 

And then, along came the perfect storm of the 24-hour news cycle, the Internet, and avaricious stockholders who sucked the life out the newspapers they had amassed, slashing staff and content to the point where even people who like to hold a newspaper in their hands are no longer willing to part with the pocket change needed to buy one.

But, while the Progress was devolving into just another place to read the same stories that are available in tons of other newspapers and on countless web sites, the C-ville Review evolved into two newsweeklies – the C-ville Weekly and The Hook– both featuring in-depth local news coverage and that lamentably rara avis: investigative reporting.  

(You want an example? Check out The Hook's dogged coverage of the dredging of the Rivanna Reservoir.)

These are stories you won't find elsewhere, and therein lies the appeal of these newspapers. Unlike the lumbering Daily Progress– which is owned by somebody in a galaxy far, far away, and is now mostly a printer of those press releases and wire service reports, not to mention editorials that are devoid of any connection to the community– these newsweeklies are small and locally-owned, which allows them the flexibility to adapt to a changing landscape.

Most notable is their expansion into the electronic environment with user-friendly, interactive websites filled with original, local content. The Internet is a place where the "weeklies" become the "hourlies"– the websites you turn to when there's breaking local news. As the mass extinction of the behemoth dailies accelerates, I have my eye on the locally-owned independent newspapers– these shapers of local opinion, keepers of the flame of investigative journalism. 

And not just the two we have here, but the little guys all over the country.

These papers are not encumbered by stockholders' demands for higher profits, and when the boss is just down the hall, it's a lot easier to adapt quickly to changing circumstances.

The dinosaurs are, one by one, dropping dead. But before you give up hope for the future of journalism, consider this: There's a niche to be filled, and these bantam contenders could well be our natural selection.


Janis Jaquith loves NPR, where she's a frequent essayist, as much as papers.