It Isn’t Just Gannett

The consolidation of the country’s newspapers has been a preoccupation of  Americans who recognize the extreme importance of “the press”-who appreciate the outsized role that journalism plays in community and self-government. Large-scale, rapacious companies like Gannett (see yesterday’s post) have been the target of withering criticism for years.

But there’s a difference between corporations like Gannett and hedge funds like Alden Global Capital.

Gannett and its ilk were convinced that they could operate newspapers more efficiently–that they could do more–or at least as much– with less, and thereby continue to enjoy the high profit margins that the industry used to provide. Quality journalism was secondary–it was just the widget/product that happened to generate the all-important profits. (The fact that the company greatly overpaid for many of the papers it purchased made that optimism unrealistic.) Their first loyalty was–and is– to the bottom line, but they at least give lip service to the importance of journalism.

Hedge funds like Alden never bothered; they’ve simply “strip mined” the newspapers they’ve purchased–intentionally destroying them. As the linked article puts it, these funds are composed of

investors who have figured out how to get rich by strip-mining local-news outfits. The model is simple: Gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible out of the enterprise until eventually enough readers cancel their subscriptions that the paper folds, or is reduced to a desiccated husk of its former self

The men who devised this model are Randall Smith and Heath Freeman, the co-founders of Alden Global Capital. Since they bought their first newspapers a decade ago, no one has been more mercenary or less interested in pretending to care about their publications’ long-term health. Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that Alden-owned newspapers have cut their staff at twice the rate of their competitors; not coincidentally, circulation has fallen faster too, according to Ken Doctor, a news-industry analyst who reviewed data from some of the papers. That might sound like a losing formula, but these papers don’t have to become sustainable businesses for Smith and Freeman to make money.

Alden’s aggressive cost-cutting makes Gannett look generous. The hedge fund has found a financially-rewarding formula: it continues to operate the newspapers it acquires at a profit for a few years, but during those years, it turns out a steadily worsening product and alienates subscribers.

This investment strategy does not come without social consequences. When a local newspaper vanishes, research shows, it tends to correspond with lower voter turnout, increased polarization, and a general erosion of civic engagement. Misinformation proliferates. City budgets balloon, along with corruption and dysfunction. The consequences can influence national politics as well; an analysis by Politico found that Donald Trump performed best during the 2016 election in places with limited access to local news.

With its acquisition of Tribune Publishing earlier this year, Alden now controls more than 200 newspapers, including some of the country’s most famous and influential: the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, the New York Daily News. It is the nation’s second-largest newspaper owner by circulation. Some in the industry say they wouldn’t be surprised if Smith and Freeman end up becoming the biggest newspaper moguls in U.S. history.

The linked article describes what happens after an acquisition by Alden, telling the stories of specific newspapers, the people who worked at them, and the cities and towns they no longer serve. It also profiles the men who run Alden–men who proudly identify themselves as “vulture capitalists” and who are identified by others as the “grim reapers” of journalism.( At least one of them–unsurprisingly–is a  major supporter of Donald Trump, whose constant attacks on the news alarmed people who understood the importance of journalism to democratic governance.)

I cannot do justice to the Atlantic’s thorough and meticulous reporting in a brief blog post. Everyone reading this should click through and read the well-researched and eye-opening article in its entirety.

The crisis in local journalism has been the subject of concern and debate for well over a decade. We are now at a point where–in the absence of viable replacements for what has been lost–repairing the damage to governance and community will be difficult to impossible to achieve.

I never imagined quoting Donald Rumsfeld, of all people, but without a robust and vigorous press, we won’t know what we don’t know.

If American democracy collapses, Mitch McConnell and the sniveling invertebrates in the  GOP will share responsibility with vulture capitalists like Alden Global Capital.

What We Lose When We Lose Local News

We live in a time of multiple crises, and–like all such times–there are a number of contributing causes. Arguably, one major contributor to Americans’ current inability to work together or even communicate is the media environment we inhabit.

Much has been written about disinformation and our improved ability to live in informational “bubbles.” Other consequences have received less attention.

That’s especially true when the loss is local–and it is at the local level where we have lost the most. Between newspaper closures (since 2004, the United States has lost a quarter— 2,100 – of its local newspapers, including 70 dailies and over 2,000 weeklies) and so-called  “ghost” papers–newspapers that are theoretically still functioning, but no longer have the ability to adequately cover local news–the situation at the local level is grim.

A recent article in the Atlantic focused on what we lose when we lose local news. “What We Lost When Gannett Came to Town,” was a “deep dive” into the loss of The Hawk Eye, a newspaper in Burlington, Iowa.

As the author noted, in her youth, the local newspaper was where teenagers looked for summer jobs, families found weekend tag sales and folks learned about openings of new stores and restaurants. “The paper was where we first learned that my close friend’s father had died in a Mississippi water-skiing accident. It was where my high-school Girl Scout troop got a half-page spread our senior year.”

Larger metropolitan papers ran fewer of those more homey items, but gave residents “news you can use” about local government agencies, schools and the goings-on at the State legislature. In Indianapolis, as elsewhere, a significant percentage of residents once read the morning paper, and thus–as I have previously noted–occupied a common information environment.

The Indianapolis Star was never a particularly distinguished example of journalism, but after it was acquired by Gannett, it descended into irrelevance. The Hawk Eye may have served a small Iowa town, but the author’s description of what happened in the wake of its purchase by Gannett could have been written here.

The Hawk Eye isn’t dead yet, which sets it apart from many other local newspapers in America. Its staff, now down to three overstretched news reporters, still produces a print edition six days a week. But the paper is dying. Its pages are smaller than they used to be, and there are fewer of them. Even so, wide margins and large fonts are used to fill space. The paper is laid out by a remote design team and printed 100 miles away in Peoria, Illinois; if a reader doesn’t get her paper in the morning, she is instructed to dial a number that will connect her to a call center in the Philippines. Obituaries used to be free; now, when your uncle dies, you have to pay to publish a write-up.

These days, most of The Hawk Eye’s articles are ripped from other Gannett-owned Iowa publications, such as The Des Moines Register and the Ames Tribune, written for a readership three hours away. The Opinion section, once an arena for local columnists and letter writers to spar over the merits and morals of riverboat gambling and railroad jobs moving to Topeka, is dominated by syndicated national columnists.

Why does this matter?

Research confirms that the loss of a properly functioning local paper leads to diminished participation in municipal elections, which become less competitive. Corruption goes unchecked, driving costs up for local government. Disinformation proliferates because people start to get their “facts” from social media.

But as the author notes, the decline of The Hawk Eye also revealed a quieter, less quantifiable change.

When people lament the decline of small newspapers, they tend to emphasize the most important stories that will go uncovered: political corruption, school-board scandals, zoning-board hearings, police misconduct. They are right to worry about that. But often overlooked are the more quotidian stories, the ones that disappear first when a paper loses resources: stories about the annual Teddy Bear Picnic at Crapo Park, the town-hall meeting about the new swimming-pool design, and the tractor games during the Denmark Heritage Days.

These stories are the connective tissue of a community; they introduce people to their neighbors, and they encourage readers to listen to and empathize with one another. When that tissue disintegrates, something vital rots away. We don’t often stop to ponder the way that a newspaper’s collapse makes people feel: less connected, more alone. As local news crumbles, so does our tether to one another.

The stories that connect the residents of larger cities and towns may differ from those she describes, but they are equally important. And thanks to rapacious companies like Gannett, they’ve been equally lost.

And then there’s Alden Global Capital, which I’ll discuss tomorrow….

 

A Prize For Evidence

There are all kinds of ways to divide/categorize the American public: there’s the urban/rural divide, the differences between Republicans and Democrats, people who are college educated versus those who are not…One distinction that is rarely highlighted but incredibly important doesn’t even have a descriptive term–it’s the difference between people who recognize and respect evidence and those who don’t.

Think of it as the difference between people who accept the Enlightenment emphasis on empirical reality and those who are “faith-based.” Being faith-based, at least as I am using the term, doesn’t necessarily mean “religious.” It means preferring an ideological commitment–something taken on faith– to demonstrable reality, and a number of people–many of them highly educated–fall into that category.

The judges who award the Nobel Prize just delivered a message to those faith-based folks, and that message was that real-world evidence matters more than ideological or theological preferences, no matter how sincerely or deeply held.

The Nobel Prize in Economics went to three American scholars. One of those was David Card of the University of California at Berkeley, who will receive half the prize.

NPR has the story.

Card was recognized in part for his groundbreaking work in the early 1990s with the late Princeton economist Alan Krueger, which challenged conventional wisdom about minimum wages.

Economists had long assumed that there was a tradeoff between higher wages and jobs. If the minimum wage went up, it was thought, some workers would get higher pay but others would be laid off.

But when Card and Krueger looked at the actual effect of higher wages on fast food workers, they found no significant drop in employment.

In other words, Card and Krueger explored  what actually happened when adjacent jurisdictions imposed different minimum wage laws. They compared fast food restaurants in New Jersey, which raised its minimum wage, to restaurants in neighboring Pennsylvania, which did not.

As CNN reported,

Three economists were awarded the Nobel Prize on Monday for showing that precise — and surprising — answers to some of society’s most pressing questions can be gleaned from experiments rooted in real life.

David Card was recognized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for groundbreaking work on minimum wages, immigration and education. He showed, using a natural experiment — where researchers study situations as they unfold in the real world — that increasing the minimum wage does not necessarily lead to fewer jobs.

The announcement of the award made special mention of the importance of “experiments rooted in real life.” Until very recently, much research–including economic research–has been heavily theoretical and mathematical: this equation or formula predicts that taking such-and-such action will bring about thus-and-so result.

Card said his work was mostly about “trying to get more scientific tie-in and evidence-based analysis in economics.”

“Most old fashioned economists are very theoretical, but these days, a large fraction of economics is really very nuts-and-bolts, looking at subjects like education or health, or at the effects of immigration or the effects of wage policies,” he said.

The Nobel committee noted the importance of that emphasis on real-world evidence.

“Card’s studies of core questions for society and Angrist and Imbens’ methodological contributions have shown that natural experiments are a rich source of knowledge. Their research has substantially improved our ability to answer key causal questions, which has been of great benefit to society,” Peter Fredriksson, chair of the Economic Sciences Prize Committee, said in a statement.

I’ve previously admitted that–much like those “conventional” economists– I had accepted the belief that a higher minimum wage would lead to job losses. It seemed so logical. I later realized that the “logic” required a seldom-noted caveat: all other things being equal. And in the real world, all other things are rarely equal.

What led to that realization was real-world evidence that became available after studies done by Card and others persuaded some jurisdictions to raise their minimum wages and report the results.

There’s nothing wrong with theory, but it’s a framework for empirical exploration, not a substitute. In the end, real world evidence is what matters.

 

 

Texas, Education And The Holocaust

It sounded like snark.

When the reports first emerged that a Texas school administrator was advising schools to teach “both sides” of the Holocaust, I assumed that some late-night comedian was making a point. After all, what are the arguments for genocide? But I was wrong. Texas–where the governor insists that life-saving vaccines are optional–wants schoolchildren to have the benefit of “both sides” of the argument whether it’s okay to murder six million people.

The Guardian, among other news sources, has the story.

A Texas school district official told educators if they kept books about the Holocaust in their classrooms, they would have to also offer “opposing” viewpoints in order to comply with a new state law.

In an audio clip obtained by NBC News, Gina Peddy, the executive director of curriculum and instruction for Carroll independent school district in Southlake, offered the guidance to teachers during a training on which books teachers can keep in classroom libraries.

The directive came as part of a training session during which a fourth-grade teacher was reprimanded for having a book on anti-racism in her class.

It followed the passage of a new Texas law that requires teachers who discuss “widely debated and currently controversial issues of public policy or social affairs” to examine the issues from diverse viewpoints without giving “deference to any one perspective”.

At the training, Peddy advised teachers to remember the requirements of the new law, according to the audio. “And make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust,” she said, “that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives,” which prompted a teacher to ask how one could oppose the Holocaust.

Given that this is Texas, one distinct possibility is that Gina Peddy has no idea what the holocaust was. Teaching accurate history–okay, history–is evidently not a priority for Texas school systems. After all, this is a state that celebrates a fictitious version of the Alamo, a state that passed a law banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory, despite the fact that it wasn’t being taught and despite considerable evidence that the legislators and governors involved in the frenzy couldn’t have defined it if their lives depended on it.

If Texas’ governor and legislature weren’t so determined to make themselves ridiculous–not to mention dangerous– it would be unfair to pick on the state. After all, twenty-two states have passed laws prohibiting their public schools from discussing “uncomfortable” elements of the nation’s historical bigotries.

The directive to “teach the other side” joins the equally asinine efforts to “teach the controversy” over evolution. Religious zealots who denied science created the “controversy” and then used it to justify bringing religious dogma into science classrooms. People desperate to protect their children from the less glorious aspects of American history seized on a theory being pursued by a subset of legal scholars–creating the “controversy”– and are using it as blunt instrument to defend the indefensible.

In fact, Texas’ current embarrassment is just the latest iteration of the persistent American divide between people who want the public schools to educate and those who want them to indoctrinate–between those who want to limit the nation’s schools to the inculcation of skills needed to participate in the economy, and those who want educators to encourage intellectual curiosity and growth.

The order to “balance” condemnation of the holocaust with–what? Mien Kampf?–was entirely foreseeable. After all, the attacks on school boards (in all fairness, not just in Texas but around the country) have come almost exclusively from parents and others demanding that history be whitewashed (pun intended), turned into soothing stories that allow Americans to brag about “exceptionalism” and who believe political rhetoric about the country’s past, unblemished “greatness.”

Unfortunately, their preferred stories aren’t history, and if they are taught in place of history, they’ll ensure that we keep making the mistakes that have kept us from greatness in the past.

 

 

 

 

Truly Terrifying Data…

Earlier this month, Thomas Edsall investigated the phenomenon that has most reasonable, rational citizens incredulous: the significant number of Americans who believe what has been dubbed “the Big Lie.

Just who believes the claim that Donald Trump won in 2020 and that the election was stolen from him? Who are these tens of millions of Americans, and what draws them into this web of delusion?

Three sources provided The Times with survey data: the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Poll, P.R.R.I. (the Public Religion Research Institute) and Reuters-Ipsos. With minor exceptions, the data from all three polls is similar.

Edsall quotes a political science professor from the University of Massachusetts for a summary of the data:

About 35 percent of Americans believed in April that Biden’s victory was illegitimate, with another 6 percent saying they are not sure. What can we say about the Americans who do not think Biden’s victory was legitimate? Compared to the overall voting-age population, they are disproportionately white, Republican, older, less educated, more conservative and more religious (particularly more Protestant and more likely to describe themselves as born again).

Once again, the evidence connects Trumpism, and the alternate reality inhabited by Trumpets, with racism and fear of the “other.” P.R.R.I. tested for agreement or disagreement with so-called “replacement theory” —the belief that  “Immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background” — and found that 60 percent of Republicans agreed, as do 55 percent of conservatives.

Edsall also probed the connection between authoritarianism and opposition to immigration, quoting from a recent academic paper:

Right-wing authoritarianism played a significant role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In subsequent years, there have been numerous “alt-right” demonstrations in the U.S., including the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that culminated in a fatal car attack, and the 2021 Capitol Insurrection. In the U.S., between 2016 and 2017 the number of attacks by right-wing organizations quadrupled, outnumbering attacks by Islamic extremist groups, constituting 66 percent of all attacks and plots in the U.S. in 2019 and over 90 percent in 2020.

As he explained, the term “social dominance orientation” refers to the belief that society should be structured by group-based hierarchies–that certain groups should be dominant over others. There are actually two inter-related components to the orientation: group-based dominance and anti-egalitarianism. People with a social dominance orientation prefer hierarchies and–importantly–approve of the use of force/aggression to maintain them. Anti-egalitarianism manifests itself as a preference to maintain these hierarchies through means other than violence, through systems, legislation, and social structures.

Studies of the 2016 primaries found that Trump voters were unique compared to supporters of other Republicans in the strength of their “group-based dominance.”

The column quotes from a scholarly paper, “The Existential Function of Right-Wing Authoritarianism,” to answer the question that most baffles the rest of us: why do people embrace authoritarianism?

It may seem ironic that authoritarianism, a belief system that entails sacrifice of personal freedom to a strong leader, would influence the experience of meaning in life through its promotion of feelings of personal significance. Yet right-wing authoritarianism does provide a person with a place in the world, as a loyal follower of a strong leader. In addition, compared to purpose and coherence, knowing with great certainty that one’s life has mattered in a lasting way may be challenging. Handing this challenge over to a strong leader and investment in societal conventions might allow a person to gain a sense of symbolic or vicarious significance.

Furthermore,

perceptions of insignificance may lead individuals to endorse relatively extreme beliefs, such as authoritarianism, and to follow authoritarian leaders as a way to gain a sense that their lives and their contributions matter.

In other words, right-wing authoritarianism, serves an existential meaning function–it provides reassurance “that one’s life matters.”

Political psychologists tell us that individuals who are “cognitively inflexible and intolerant of ambiguity” are more likely to become “captive audiences for ideological, political or religious extremists whose simplistic world-views gloss over nuance.”

It’s worth reminding ourselves that–while today’s threats are mostly from the Right, Leftwing zealots are cut from the same cloth. Fanatics are fanatics.

Edsall quotes other academics who confirm the connection between authoritarianism and racism, and he explores what the research tells us about intellectualism versus anti-intellectualism, the conflicts between individuals with different moral commitments, and the elements that may lead to radicalization–especially the willingness to use violence in furtherance of one’s moral commitments. What, in other words, distinguishes those who hold extreme views from those who violently act on them?

I encourage you to click through and read the entire essay, which explains a lot. What it doesn’t explain, unfortunately, is what we can do to salvage the American Experiment.