The Delocalization of Events

A small, single-engine plane has crashed into a building here in Austin. It’s national news being covered on all the cable networks.

The site of the event is about five miles to the South of my house. I’ve driven by that building literally thousands of times…

… but for all that the crash directly affected me it might as well have been on the other side of the planet. Had my spouse not called, I wouldn’t have know about it until I did my lunch-break scan of Instapundit. I can’t even see the smoke. Everything I know about the event comes from the TV news.

In short, I have as much information about this local event as does someone elsewhere in America or, indeed, even the world.

Prior to the Internet, most news was local. An event such as this would have been known to the local population via the local media, and then only an abbreviated story would make it to the national news and no one outside the country would ever have heard of it.

What are consequences of this delocalization of news? Any individual only has so much time to spend consuming news. If we spend time consuming reports from all over the world, that means we displace our consumption of local news. We end up in the perverse situation wherein we know more about a community on the other side of the world than we do our own.

Will this further decouple us from our local communities? I know that in recent years I have paid less attention to the local news than I did pre-Internet. Will we grow more concerned about distant problems over which we have little to no input, and neglect local problems that we could actually fix?

I don’t know what the future will bring but this event feels very surreal.

15 thoughts on “The Delocalization of Events”

  1. The Orange County Register (Which used to be the Santa Ana Register but Santa Ana has few English speakers anymore) drove the LA Times right out of the county in the 80s and 90s by doing a far better job covering local news. The paper even bought up the local “throwaway” papers. Then, once the LA Times was gone, or at least had ended its Orange County Edition, the Register started to slack off on local news. Their star reporter who did lots of local stuff, Steve Greenhut, now shows up in Reason and the Wall Street Journal. The Register is fading because most of us have less reason to read it, even on-line. Now, they run mostly NY Times national and international stories, which does not appeal to their traditional readership.

    I know the newspapers are having a terrible time with advertising, but why do they have to screw up the rest of their product ? There is a group of people here who are intensely interested in local news and they now rely on local blogs since the Register has lost interest.

  2. The problem is that news is being gathered expensively and it is simply not profitable to spread that expense over so few customers. If you were to gather news inexpensively, local news would roar into the forefront because we care about what affects us directly. It’s just that nobody has figured out how to gather that news cheaply enough to create a nice business out of it.

    There’s a solution to the news consumption angle as well. It’s called business intelligence and it is what busy executives use to consume huge amounts of data in short amounts of time. Set up a dashboard that covers what you care about and when you see a sea of green, you know everything is alright. See a yellow or a red and you know to drill down to the story which might be that a bridge you use to commute to work just got downgraded on its latest engineering safety inspection or your kid’s school just cancelled classes due to inclement weather.

    You might subscribe to the infrastructure report, the crime blotter, the social notices, and the local business roundup, all of which are provided by your local paper and all of these data feeds going into a business intelligence dashboard you can view online or in narrative form on hardcopy for a great deal more money. Customized printing that creates individual local newspapers for each subscriber is already available. Once the framework for mass business intelligence usage is created (you only need to do it once), filling it with county level and even municipal level news to the extent that you have a profitable product should be much less expensive than the current paper’s production costs. A good deal of the content might even be entirely automated.

  3. Today the major news channels seem to pick up on every horrible event (murder, kidnapping, Amber alert) where ever it happens in the US and cover it non stop. I had to stop watching TV at the health club while jogging because they showed mayhem the whole time and it was depressing.

    There is no context nor positive news because “if it bleeds, it leads”. Now it should be changed to “if it bleeds anywhere, it leads”. Thus we get a dis-proportionate amount of evil in the news while the actual amount of evil per capita may or may not be rising.

  4. Carl From Chicago,

    Thus we get a dis-proportionate amount of evil in the news while the actual amount of evil per capita may or may not be rising.

    Yes that is one reason I stopped watching TV news. It’s grim and pointless.

  5. It’s grim and pointless.

    Don’t forget misleading.

    The central problem with the broadcast business model is that the incentives all work to maximize excitement rather than accuracy, because the model is driven by mass-advertising revenue. And the way to maximize mass-advertising revenue is to maximize audience size, which is most easily done by publishing news about bizarre and shocking (and, almost by definition, atypical) events. This is where “if it bleads it leads” comes from.

    The crazy thing is that so many journalists still seem to believe that journalism is synonymous with a particular obsolescent business model.

  6. Jonathan,

    The central problem with the broadcast business model is that the incentives all work to maximize excitement rather than accuracy

    That’s true. I think that is why the Wall Street Journal can make an online for fee model work and other news outlets can’t. The WSJ sells real functional information whereas the others just sell excitement. Unfortunately for them, there are a lot of sources of free excitement on line these days.

  7. I like the term Delocalization of Events.

    I’ve been alarmed at watching the changes in what is considered good parenting since I was a kid and I’ve been attributing it to this.

    I used to walk 1/10 mile to the school bus. It was not uphill both ways but occasionally it was in the snow. On the same street, parents drive their kids to the bus and sit there idling their cars until the bus shows up. They pass the children to the bus driver like they are trying to maintain a chain of evidence. In the afternoon the reverse happens. The kids are never without adult supervision.

    In the evening they drive their children to soccer practice or Little League or Scouts and stay with them the whole time. There is no play that does not have adults supervising and parents participating. When they have disputes over who gets to play with the ball, parents step in to resolve it.

    The kids rarely run around the neighborhood. No wonder there is childhood obesity problems.

    I attribute it all to the incredible amount of attention we pay to non-local child abductions. I’m not saying that there is anything at all good about an abduction, but here in Pittsburgh there is nothing we can do about an abducted child in Kansas City. But it makes the event seem common, causing parents to watch over their children more closely. And give them less space to determine how the world works before they leave the nest.

  8. The problem is that news is being gathered expensively and it is simply not profitable to spread that expense over so few customers. If you were to gather news inexpensively, local news would roar into the forefront because we care about what affects us directly. It’s just that nobody has figured out how to gather that news cheaply enough to create a nice business out of it.

    TM Lutas, have you checked out the Examiners? One of the more profitable news businesses in the news industry.

  9. Ha, I went through the same sequence yesterday.
    Logged on to Instapundit, learned about the plane crash 2 miles from home.

    But the flip side is that all this dislocal connectivity should create a sense of the universality of human experiences too.

    eg I for one had no clue about the kind of urban structures to be found worldwide until Google Earth started giving me street level views of neighborhoods I couldn’t possibly ever get to. And now I chat on a daily basis with programmers from India, manufacturers from China, and engineers from Europe.

  10. This phenomenon was noticed and named six years ago.

    Core’s Law of New Media: There Is No Such Thing As Local News Anymore. In the Internet Age, anything anybody has said anywhere, anytime, can sooner or later become known everywhere else.

  11. Broadcast news is now a cost and entertainment driven service. Stories that give good video will get play, while more meaningful stories which don’t show well get shuffled to the back. Hence the networks are all over the plane crash in Austin, and the worker trapped in a hole at the casino construction site. A few months ago balloon boy was the biggest story on air for days.
    Meanwhile, wholesale prices jump 1.4% in January. How many hours did CNN and FOX spend on that story? (I’m sure they covered it, but not with the same vigor).
    The deepest issue with this nationalization of media coverage was noted above – there is only so much news consumption time, and if we spend it on stories which have no effect on us at all, we have a lost opportunity cost for stories which have large impacts on our lives.
    Show of hands – who has read or watched coverage of your local governing body in the last three months (town/city council, county commissioners or county executive meeting, whatever is your first line of control). I believe the greatest amount of freedom comes with decentralization of government, but if people are unwilling to exercise control over local events, the freedom is lost. Spending an hour a week watching coverage of a Las Vegas shooting instead of watching your local leaders consider tax increases and service changes is an abdication of your role as a citizen.

  12. I used to read the local paper, “The Hoboken Reporter” before it turned into a shopping circular, devoid of content. Inversely proportionate to its decline, came roaring up as TMLutas said above. One guy, now a force in local politics (if you remember, our new mayor was arrested three weeks into his term) –people knew he was the old boy network/machine candidate. Reader tips, photos, scanner reports, and commenting have made it a go-to spot for news and happenings in town.
    He gets a ton of pageviews–I went there first for a couple of noteworthy plane crashes last year. Sully was #1, but a gen av crash with the tourist helicopter was first person tips almost instantly.

    I’m not that guy, btw, nor any financial interest.

  13. What an interesting perspective. I have a similar experience this week. I’m in CT and apparently earlier this week there was a torches and pitchforks parade by gov’t union thugs to push for Obamacare. ( I also only learned of it via instapundit.
    Internet as news source leads to a disconnectedness with our own locales, or at least severs the local-news-generated connectedness that generally held true for past decades. It is what it is, but Shannon’s framing as delocalization makes me realize that if I’m to stay connected to my community it will take more effort now than in the past. Much like my parents had to make the added effort once 2 working parents became more common. As time progresses fewer make the effort, and it takes a conscious decision to adopt that effort.
    Just some thoughts to share with others who might detect the same pattern with themselves.

  14. When I took a print newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, the entire Metro section was murders and crimes of all description.

    To be honest, murders and crime do not interest me in the least – although I know I am in the minority there – and so local news had no interest to me at all.

    The local TV news is the same way – I remember at that time KTLA’s local newscast bought international news from CNN, which had a shoestring budget, so they brought us BBC reporting of stuff like the Falkland Islands. I liked KTLA, and I really liked the CNN coverage, because it had a wonderful British/International flavor. You felt like you were talking to people for whom this was, well, a local problem. So to me the international stuff was what was interesting and the local crime stuff wasn’t even worth listening to.

    So local news was not of interest to me then because local news covered topics I wasn’t interested in.

    I got most of my local political news from the pinko-left LA Weekly. They may be pinkos, I told myself, but at least they care, and are honest about reporting. Although how you can hold pinko-left beliefs while watching government endlessly fail was always incomprehensible to me.

    Although I no longer live in Los Angeles, I will still occasionally visit the Weekly for its local coverage … one thing that’s nice about the web is that we can easily remain in some kind of touch with our former home towns. I wish I was back there – I really loved living there far more than where I am now – but the cost of living almost destroyed me. That’s why I’m not there anymore.


  15. News can be gathered inexpensively. In 1991 I worked at a local AM/FM radio combo. As a recent college grad, I’d get $25 for covering things like a school board meeting and brining back some local sound. If the meeting lasted less than 5 hours, it was a raise over my normal $5 per hour. The town of about 25,000 had three local media outlets covering these events. It was no surprise that over 90% of the eligible voters voted.

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