"Not only is it going to be intrinsically difficult to ever find a viable revenue model for paying a reporter to cover the zoning board if people don’t want to read about the zoning board," writes Matt Yglesias, "[but] I’m not actually sure how much social value is created by unread articles about zoning boards. If an article about proposed modifications to the Purple Line falls in the wilderness and nobody’s there to read it, are we really making a difference?"
He goes on to suggest that neighborhood bloggers and other forms of amateur local coverage are stepping ably into this gap and aren't confined by revenue models. But this is exactly where the deterioration of newspapers gets worrying. An unread article on the Purple Line in The Washington Post is still an article in The Washington Post. No one really knows how many people read it. There's always the chance that those readers might read it. And if the paper really wants to emphasize the point, they can throw the article on A1 and write it with a bit more controversy. Then people will read it.
The news business, we all agree, is an inefficient enterprise. But it has benevolent inefficiencies. Not every story in the paper maximizes readership and thus advertising revenue. The low-readership stories, however, aren't misfires. They're aimed at a different audience: Empowered elites. They make the political system aware of problems, or they alert the political system to the fact that other people are aware of problems*.
And that only works because newspapers are hard to ignore. The result is a startlingly inefficient from a revenues standpoint but fairly important from a civic accountability standpoint. Newspapers run popular articles and use their resulting readership to make their unpopular articles matter to the relevant constituencies. Regulators, say. Or city councilmen who wanted the paper's future endorsement. That's the thing a blogger can't do. They can get the information. But they can't make it matter. They're easier to ignore. In that way, the fear isn't that we'll stop having news. But that that news will stop forcing accountability.