Tag Archives: newspapers

The Nationalization Of Politics

Over at FiveThirtyEight.com, Dan Hopkins makes one of those observations that seems so obvious once you’ve read it…

Hopkins addresses one of the troubling features of today’s political reality: the nationalization of our politics. As he notes, the actions of state and local elected officials have an important and immediate effect on our lives–why, then, do Americans seem  fixated on Washington, D.C. almost to the exclusion of local politics?

He attributes much of the change to the transformation of American media markets, and how that transformation has affected voters’ knowledge and participation levels.

According to Hopkins, Americans are increasingly turning away from media outlets that provide state and local coverage, substituting Fox News or MSNBC or other sources providing national coverage for their hometown newspapers and television news reports.

The effects are felt in turnout numbers:

It’s not exactly news that turnout for state and local races is lower than turnout for presidential races. But this pattern’s very familiarity may have obscured just how surprising it is. After all, states and localities take primary responsibility for schools, transportation and criminal justice, three policy areas that can have a major effect on people’s day-to-day lives. And if people were motivated to vote primarily by the idea that their vote might decide the outcome, they would be far more likely to cast a ballot in a small local elections, where their odds of being the decisive vote are much higher, than in a national one.

In a federalist system, it is always noteworthy when national politics draw a disproportionate level of attention — and all the more so when the gap between national politics and state and local politics has been growing sharply. That’s exactly what has been happening in the past few decades: Voter turnout for president has remained roughly constant while turnout for state and local races has fallen.

Hopkins is correct in noting that, since 1980, Americans have increasingly turned to national media to learn about politics.  Where I find his analysis wanting, however, is his attribution of that change to a perceived advantage that these national content providers have over what he calls “older, spatially bound media sources.”

I think Hopkins misses a far more compelling explanation: local news has become dramatically less newsworthy, when it has survived at all.

Television news has always been more superficial than newspaper reporting–it also has depended on local newspapers more than most viewers appreciate. And we’ve lost local newspaper journalism.

Not long before the Internet became ubiquitous, major chains like Gannett were busily buying up local newspapers. When Internet competition cut dramatically into the profits generated by those local papers (Craig’s List alone cost them billions annually in classified advertising revenue), those papers became far less profitable. Many were still saddled with the debt incurred when they purchased the local papers, many of which had been bought at a premium justified by pre-Internet profit margins.

Most papers responded as our local newspaper did– by drastically cutting editorial staff.  Today, our daily paper has little to no news content other than sports and entertainment. No one is regularly covering the statehouse or city hall. There are no beat reporters assigned to school board meetings, or city-county council meetings, and on the rare occasion when a reporter is sent to cover some government activity, he or she lacks the background knowledge needed to ask the pertinent questions, or to really understand what is going on.

State and local government has become less visible and accountable because we have no local journalists devoted to making making them visible or holding them accountable. (And speaking of accountability–a recent study conducted by a Notre Dame professor has confirmed a direct correlation between a rise in the cost of local government and the loss of local newspapers.)

We aren’t reading the local paper any more because there is very little actual news to read.

What We Lost When We Lost Newspapers

I recently read an article on Resilience–an aggregator website–that struck a chord.

The author was bemoaning, as so many of us do, the disappearance of what I’ve referred to previously as the “journalism of verification.” These are the paragraphs that really resonated with me:

Our modern culture tells us that we have more information today than anyone in history, because of the internet – but that assumes that data that could theoretically appear on a screen has the same value as words read from paper. In truth, few web sites will cover the library board meeting or the public works department, and if they do they are likely to be a blog by a single unpaid individual. Yet these ordinary entities shape our children’s minds and our present health, and as such are infinitely more important than any celebrity gossip — possibly more important then presidential campaigns.

Even if a blogger were to cover the library board or water board, no editors would exist to review the material for quality or readability, and the writer would be under no social, financial or legal pressure to be accurate or professional, or to publish consistently, or to pass on their duties to another once they resign.

Recently, former programmers at Facebook accused the site of manipulating the identity of “trending” stories. I have no idea whether this is true (actually, I sort of doubt it, for a number of reasons not relevant to this post), but in a culture permeated by suspicion, I’m sure the accusation will get traction–and add to our already high levels of paranoia.

One of the most daunting challenges of contemporary governance–really, of contemporary life–is the pervasiveness of distrust. Americans no longer know who or what to believe, are no longer able to separate fact from opinion, and no longer feel confident that they can know the agendas and evaluate the performance of their social and political institutions.

We live in an era when spin has become propaganda, and reputable sources of information must compete with “click bait” designed to appeal to pre-existing prejudices. Partisans of all sorts play on well-known human frailties like confirmation bias. 

The result, of course, is that Americans increasingly occupy different realities, making communication–let alone rational problem-solving, negotiation and compromise–virtually impossible.

Just one recent example, among too many to count: Sean Hannity of Fox “News” recently cited an “authoritative report” to the effect that the Kremlin had hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails, and was debating whether to release them. And where did this “authoritative report” originate? On WhatDoesItMean.com.

Currently, WhatDoesItMean.com boasts front page headlines such as “Northern England Stunned After British Fighter Jets Battle UFO,” “Russia Warned Of ‘Wrath Of God’ Event As West Prepares To Honor New Planet With Satanic Ritual,” “Music Icon Prince Dies After Obama Regime Fails To Heed Russian Warning,” and “Mysterious Planet Ejected From Black Hole At Center Of Galaxy Warned Could Soon Impact Earth.”

Look, I don’t think anyone wants to return to the era of the “gate-keeper,” where reporters and editors got to decide what news was–what merited coverage and what could safely be ignored. But we desperately need to identify methods that will allow consumers of media to recognize what’s wheat and what’s chaff– to distinguish spin, propaganda and opinion from factual information.

The emergence of Donald Trump as the nominee of a once-respectable political party should be all the evidence we need that the extent of media coverage and the value, accuracy and relevance of that coverage are very different things.

What we lost when we lost the journalism of verification is our ability to engage in responsible self-government.

Paywall Decisions

Last year, after 50+ years as a subscriber, I stopped taking the Indianapolis Star. My reasons were the same as those of the large numbers of other people who have decided to forgo the morning ritual–there is very little “there” there anymore.

The Star and other daily newspapers are in a death spiral, partially due to circumstances beyond their control, and partly due to really poor decisions about how to cope with those circumstances. By now, we can all recite the litany of change: the Internet brought other news sources to our fingertips, mostly for free; Craig’s List cost newspapers a billion dollars a year in classified advertising revenue.  The existing business model simply disappeared.

Meanwhile, big chains like Gannett had gobbled up the dailies, paying inflated prices with borrowed money. Between the competitive changes and the massive debt, bottom lines suffered. So the new owners did what businesspeople do in such situations–they cut employees. Newsrooms have been decimated over the past decade. And the result was–duh!–less news. And with less news came less reason to buy the paper in the first place.

I stopped subscribing when I realized I could read the paper in less than five minutes. I do scan the (very poorly designed and proofed) website from time to time, in case there is actually local news reported. I don’t miss the diet tips, the pictures of someone’s kitchen, or the celebrity “news” and similar items reprinted verbatim from national sources. Such material is widely available. What I keep hoping I’ll find is actual reporting about Indianapolis and Indiana–especially informed reporting about state and local government. There hasn’t been much of that, unfortunately–and we are seeing what happens when a community loses its “watchdog.”

The Star is now instituting a paywall. The question is whether there is enough content left to merit a 12./month charge. At my house, we willingly pay for the New York Times, because the content justifies the charge. We’ve decided to see if the electronic version of the sad remnants of what used to be a real newspaper is worth even twelve bucks a month.

Stay tuned….

 

Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?

The title of this post is the title of the textbook I plan to use in the fall, in my class on Media and Public Affairs. Unfortunately, the message it conveys–traditional media is dying–gets truer every day.

Yesterday, the Indianapolis Star announced that 60 employees were being let go. This is in addition to prior downsizing that has already resulted in a newspaper hardly worth the name.

Of course, the Star is not alone; its parent company, Gannett, has cut jobs across the board (while awarding its CEO a bonus of 1.25 million and doubling his salary just last March).

Without going into my usual rant about corporate ownership of the media, and the huge, unnecessary debt acquired during those acquisitions, let me simply share a personal anecdote that illustrates what’s wrong with trying to “save” newspapers by cutting staff.

A couple of weeks ago, I went online, and finally stopped my subscription to the Star. Someone from the sales office called, and offered me a discounted price if I would continue my subscription (clearly, they need to be able to show advertisers numbers–they’d probably have given it to me free if I’d asked). I said thanks but no thanks, at which point the salesperson asked why I was discontinuing the paper after so many years. I explained that I no longer found much worth reading in it–the paper was thinner every day, the proportion of actual news to “human interest” and “how to” stories was unacceptably low, and coverage of local and state government had become totally inadequate. With respect to national news, by the time the Star ran the few items that still made it into the paper, I’d already heard or seen them.

In short, there is no longer any “there” there.

Cutting staff will simply exacerbate this vicious downward cycle, and hasten the day that the newspaper simply ceases publication. When that day comes, I am pained to admit that there will be little of value left to lose.

The bigger question is: what will take its place? How can we rejuvenate journalism? There are more and more outlets–web sites, blogs, cable TV, radio–offering various kinds of information of widely varying quality, but there is on balance more noise, more celebrity gossip, more emphasis on sex and scandal, and less and less actual news. The question–to which we seemingly have no answer–is “who will watch local, state and national governments? Who will tell us the things we truly need to know if we are to be informed citizens?

What will happen when the last reporter turns out the lights?