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USA Today: A Rude Wake-Up Call For Cities

LOGAN AIRPORT, Boston – I’m on my way home from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s Journalists Forum , an annual event, co-sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Neiman Foundation, in which journalists from around the country convene to discuss, jointly, the fate of our industry and the fate of American cities.

Josh Stephens | April 24, 2012, 9am PDT
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LOGAN AIRPORT, Boston – I'm on my way home from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy's Journalists Forum , an annual event, co-sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Neiman Foundation, in which journalists from around the country convene to discuss, jointly, the fate of our industry and the fate of American cities.

What greeted me at the threshold of my hotel room this morning? USA Today.

To anyone who loves cities, it's a dispiriting doormat.

Ever since American cities decided to turn into clones of each other following World War II, plenty of ink has been spilled about the physical homogenization of American cities – the familiar highway strips, tract home developments, big box stores. But for one of the biggest sources of intellectual homogenization, look no further than USA Today, the literary equivalent of the Big Mac.

Local newspapers of course have fraught histories. They have often intervened in civic affairs in reprehensible ways. They've promoted developments, cheered for sports teams, and started the occasional war. But, at heart, they are dedicated to the prospect that all urban regions have unique stories to tell and that their readers are, in some way, part of those stories.

With the demise of many local newspapers and the shrinking of almost all the others, untold stories have been lost and, along with it, civic identity. Reading a local paper makes you a member of a community, or at least a welcome guest. Reading USA Today, you're nobody nowhere.

Some of these lost stories are probably expendable, like sagas of pets that have returned after inexplicable hiatuses. But what of those about local politics, business, and, of course, development? Where in USA Today do those crucial discussions take place? Certainly not in the infographics, or in the teensy paragraphs that it dedicates to each one of the 50 states.

In some ways, it makes sense that even the Cambridge Sheraton would serve up USA Today each morning. Travelers who come from all over might not care about the Red Sox and other parochial interests of the Boston Globe. But that's only if they lack all curiosity and have no desire to engage with the place that they have chosen to visit (not to mention that major papers like the Globe offer plenty of original non-local coverage, or they used to).

It's probably fair to say that every copy of USA Today is a copy of a local paper that never gets sold, yet another step towards the demise of a once-proud industry. Granted, USA Today's daily circulation is only 1.8 million, but that's no small number in an industry with slim margins. USA Today's attempt to draw the entire country under its brand – through tactics that would make a copy editor cringe, such as referring to the United States as "USA" and printing its own name in all capital letters – harms the very nation that it pretends to venerate through its pep-rally rhetoric.

Of course, USA Today has not driven local papers to the brink all on its own. Our final conference session this weekend, with Kara Swisher, a reporter with All Things D, discussed her perspective on how technology relates to city life. She was particularly enthusiastic about the blogosphere and its ability to scoop traditional newsrooms.

Swisher presents herself as the anti-Marshall McLuhan: the medium doesn't matter. But even she issued some stern warnings too about the surveillance state in which all of us now live. When you read blogs – or, more to the point, online newspapers – you can't be sure that some multinational corporation is gathering data on what you like and, if you're on a mobile device, where you are. "They're tracking you. All. The. Time," said Swisher. And you can't be sure that some corporate newsroom isn't distilling the news into its most irrelevant form.

And even if your morning "paper," isn't watching you, you can't pop open it at your local coffee shop with a healthy "thwap." You can't see it on your neighbor's porch and know that you can chat about your town's goings-on when you both get home from work in the evening. You can rarely see ads for the local general store. Nor will you see ads for Walmart, which does not mind eviscerating small towns but refuses to spend a dime advertising in local papers, as scholars such as Stacy Mitchell have noted.

For a long time, we've been promised that its morning in America. As long as USA Today greets us, it's going to be a grey day indeed.

 

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