Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

How ‘healthy’ is Scranton’s community news and information system?

Published:  March 8, 2010
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[Note: This post is one of a series that will document Scranton’s information ecosystem and how it is changing.]

Scranton, PA – One of the tests for an informed public advanced by the Knight Commission on Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy is: Does the community have at least one high-quality online hub?

Until 2009, the newspaper of record here avoided the drastic cuts already underway or completed in other metro area, and each of the three major commercial television networks aired local news. But by spring, the family-owned Scranton Times-Tribune would reduce its staff by 15 percent through buyouts and layoffs (I was among those laid off), and CBS affiliate WYOU replaced its lagging local newscasts with Judge Judy and Hollywood Insider.

 The newspaper lost 48 employees – approximately 10 of those were in the newsroom – and instituted pay cuts, wage freezes and furloughs. The CBS station shed 14 people.

Public television did not fare much better. The local public broadcasting affiliate, WVIA, which is seen and heard in 22 counties in Northeast Pennsylvania, also delivered bad news in 2009: State legislators passed a budget months overdue that included a 90 percent reduction in state funding for WVIA, also triggering layoffs, pay cuts, work furloughs, and less regional programming.

And the Lackawanna County Library Board is operating with a budget that is 9 percent lower than the previous year.

The fallout from the general financial decline of the news industry, exacerbated by the national economic recession, is felt in Scranton. Using the recommendations for a well-informed citizenry as outlined in Knight Commission report “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age,” I have begun examining Scranton’s news and information needs to spark discussion, and ultimately, action.

I debuted the report in Scranton on Wednesday, dubbing it “Informing Scranton: Gauging Community News and Information Needs,” before a public access television camera and a small audience that included two city councilmen, Frank Joyce and Joe Loscombe, who thanked me for showing them the main points of the “Informing Communities” report and examples of new online journalism around the country.

I showed my local audience what Jesus Sanchez is doing for his section of Los Angeles with his hyperlocal site TheEastSiderLA.com; how Paul Bass is using SeeClickFix at his nonprofit NewHavenIndependent.org; how Next Door Media LLC – a network of commercial community news sites in Seattle – is covering seven neighborhoods and partnering with the Seattle Times; and I pointed to the town of Hingham, Mass. website for its RSS feed and large inventory of information and links to civic organizations.

The councilmen left with an interest in improving government transparency and citizen access to information. Last week’s local meeting on the Knight Commission report was the first of others I have planned for the area for ongoing research on the local news and information needs.

By any measure of online hub, whether it is the local newspaper, the library, or television station, it could be argued that Scranton’s online community news hubs, both commercial and nonprofit, are in a degenerative situation.

Adding to matters, Scranton has been under state “distressed municipality” designation since 1992. Its population of 72,800 is aging and decreased 4.2 percent from 2000-2006, according to U.S. Census data, while the state population grew 1.3 percent over the same period.

Scranton is effectively a one-newspaper town though a rival newspaper, the Times Leader, based in nearby Wilkes-Barre, distributes a Sunday-only Scranton edition. The approximately 50,000-circulation (Monday through Friday average, higher on weekends) Scranton Times-Tribune is the dominant regional publication that covers Lackawanna County and surrounding counties.

The paper had 93 newsroom employees in 2000, according to a 2004 article in the American Journalism Review. Attrition over the years, then the layoffs and the buyouts, has brought that number to about 60 when I left the newsroom last year.

The paper here is a habit for many. According to a Feb. 20 letter by Times-Tribune publisher Bill Lynett, citing recent data by Scarborough Research: “Scranton/Wilkes-Barre has the highest readership in the United States - more than 63 percent of adults read a daily newspaper yesterday. Of the adults in Lackawanna County, more than 59 percent read The Times-Tribune yesterday. More than 75 percent read The Sunday Times last week - and more than 86 percent read our daily or Sunday newspaper or visited us online during the past week.”

These figures, however, do not resolve newspaper’s broken advertising revenue model, which continues to encumber the industry. And they do not describe local content or reader satisfaction.

Ironically, the contraction in local traditional media occurs as Pennsylvania legislators strengthened the state’s traditionally weak Sunshine laws. Without new and sustainable journalism models in the Scranton community, the informational potential of the state’s updated transparency and access policy will be lost – and so will opportunities for better public engagement.

More to follow as I continue to understand the information ecology of Scranton.

 

 

 

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