Reviving Real News

The reports of local journalism’s demise are coming fast and furious.

The Guardian recently reported on the emergence of a conservative “news” ecosystem devoted to spreading rightwing propaganda.The article told how one “fake news” source opposed a school referendum in an Illinois town.

The referendum was hotly contested – an organized, enthused Vote Yes campaign was pushing hard for people to back the vote. It looked like the referendum might deliver a yes verdict.

Enter Locality Labs, a shadowy, controversial company that purports to be a local news organization, but is facing increasing criticism as being part of a nationwide rightwing lobbying effort masquerading as journalism.

The company, with two other linked organizations, was responsible for the Hinsdale School News, a print newspaper that was distributed around Hinsdale voters. The paper had the Hinsdale high school district logo, and the look of a journalistic organization. But, as the Hinsdalean reported, the “newspaper” was stuffed full of articles, mostly byline-free, which had a distinct anti-referendum skew….

Locality Labs operates scores of sites across Illinois, Michigan, Maryland and Wisconsin, often sharing content. In Michigan alone, the Lansing State Journal reported, almost 40 sites opened in one fell swoop this fall.

The effectiveness of what is essentially a national “disinformation campaign” is amplified enormously by what columnist Margaret Sullivan has called “The  death knell for local newspapers.”

Local watchdog journalism matters: Just check the front page of the Baltimore Sun, which on Thursday carried a huge headline about the former mayor’s indictment; the Sun — even in its diminished state — broke the story in March that set those wheels in motion.

I could give you dozens of other examples from this year alone. And consider that sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein might have gotten away with most of his misdeeds if not for local journalism, particularly at the Miami Herald.

But the recent news about the news could hardly be worse. What was terribly worrisome has tumbled into disaster.

Sullivan ticks off the reasons for her dismay: the just-completed Gannett and GateHouse merger, which threatens to further reduce newsrooms throughout the country; the fiscal woes of McClatchy, the sale of the Chicago Tribune–a sale that

“ushers the vultures into Tribune,” said a Nieman Lab analysis by Ken Doctor. The implications of all these developments are stunning, he wrote: “The old world is over, and the new one — one of ghost newspapers, news deserts, and underinformed communities — is headed straight for us.”

Sullivan reminds us that, in the past 15 years, more than 2000 newspapers have simply gone out of business, and of those that are left, far too many are “phantoms” of their former selves.  Yet we still rely on local newspapers to provide original local journalism — in many communities, more than all other news sources combined.

Sullivan then makes an incredibly important point:

One of the worst parts about what has happened is that local news sources are relatively well-trusted. In an era of deep antipathy toward the media, that’s no small thing.

They still are one of the ways that many communities maintain a sense of unity and shared facts.

Losing that should be unthinkable. But as of this moment, it isn’t.

When we lose trusted sources of common information, we become easy prey for the propagandists and the conspiracy theorists.

Sullivan references the still-fledgling efforts of nonprofits and foundations to fill the local news gap. (Students in my Media and Public Policy class have wondered why local “do-gooders” don’t form a nonprofit to purchase and revitalize the pathetic remains of our local paper–something that, unfortunately, is highly unlikely to happen.)

The conventional wisdom among media observers is that there is no longer a viable business model for local newspapers (even those that are entirely on-line)–that the loss of advertising dollars that provided them with once-cushy profit margins, together with the dramatic decline in subscriptions, simply dooms them.

But here’s a “what if” for our “who can you trust?” age.

What if a local news source marketed itself with a twofold promise: that it would staff its newsroom with enough reporters to adequately cover its geographic area, including especially the agencies of local government; and that it would report nothing those reporters had not verified?  The reason we used to trust local newspapers was our confidence that they had actually confirmed the facts they reported. However, they rarely felt the need to point that out. In the era of “fake news,” trustworthiness needs to be an explicit part of marketing campaigns.

I have to believe that a lot of us would gladly pay for real news. And some advertisers might even see the reputational benefit of supporting actual journalism.

After all, someone is paying for the propaganda…

 

16 thoughts on “Reviving Real News

  1. I just finished reading what passes for a local newspaper in Indianapolis, the Star. It mentions little to nothing about the city’s governing body itself, but spends a lot of time lamenting the loss of a Republican mayoral candidate and Carmel roundabouts. There is an article about the teachers’ rally and the mess the Archdiocese has made of a special needs student’s bullying and assault.
    With the demise of the Broad Ripple Gazette our neighborhood has lost the one place where we could get regular coverage of local community news. NUVO is also gone. IBJ is one source remaining but is a niche reporter, concentrated on the business sector.
    If I didn’t have WFYI/PBS/BBC, the only places for real journalism left, I would have a steady diet of infotainment, a combination of the crime/comics/network self-promotion/obits. It is mostly not news with a few notable exceptions. And all of this in the capitol city of the state. I shudder to think what the smaller communities around the state face in the journalism deserts where they live.

  2. The Gatehouse/Gannett merger is ominous down here in the Florida Panhandle, because the main newspaper (part of Gatehouse) has been understaffed for a while. For example, it hardly ever prints its own editorials – ones from other Gatehouse papers usually are used, or ones from the Associated Press. When I commented on the ominous features of the merger in a letter to the paper, the editor emailed me, saying that it might not be bleak. He said that the merger consisted of Gatehouse buying Gannett (not the other way around), and that he felt (hoped?) that he would get more support from the new management. I think hoped is the relevant word.

  3. I have been away for two weeks so this may not be up to date….
    The Indy Star seems totally unaware that Trump is being impeached
    Trivia makes the front page daily
    NOTHING important gets there
    This is awful – even by the low standards of the Star

  4. “Lack of advertising “ to support a paper. The Indianapolis Star is more advertisements than news. Chalkbeat is quoted in the Star after having appeared on-line. Opinions and letters to the editor twice a week?

  5. Earlier this year in Indiana; we voted on a minimal tax increase to be used only to increase teacher’s salaries. The “Yes” vote won; and then what happened…

    Last week thousands of teachers from all over Indiana poured into the State House and surrounding downtown streets to rally for much needed and well deserved salary increases. No media coverage about that referendum earlier this year; Governor Holcomb and the Indiana Legislature remain silent. Indiana is already near the bottom of the quality education list of 50 states; the dumbing down of Indiana remains in the hands of the Republicans and voucher system which is the highest in the nation. No reporting on this local issue in print or on the air waves.

    I agree with Sheila’s statement; “I have to believe that a lot of us would gladly pay for real news.” I would have continued paying for the Indianapolis Star had it contained any news on any level about any vital issues. I ended my decades of home deliver subscription 1 year ago today; have only missed recycling it.

  6. Listen to Tony Katz – WIBC 93.1 FM radio, weekday mornings and you’ll be well informed. There is also WIBC.com

  7. We should not be surprised at the demise of the local newspapers. After all, when the public has been denied civics education for decades you have a population that does not see the importance of keeping informed on government issues.

  8. The only replacement for local news is via citizen journalism. We see this in Muncie and ECI as people have learned that our Gannett owned rag is woefully inadequate. I pointed this out beginning in 2011.

    Instead of our local do-gooders funding a study on how to pursue this concept, they stole a version of the idea. They worked with the Chamber and a local radio station to create a website for self-promotion by local nonprofits, for-profits, and local government. It’s nothing but self-congratulatory propaganda.

    Advertisers use direct mail to distribute their coupons — much cheaper than advertising in the newspaper.

    We now have several pages on Facebook dedicated to local news and a podcast doing fairly good journalism. Local businesses create their events on Facebook, bypassing the newspaper.

    This quote from Sheila…”When we lose trusted sources of common information, we become easy prey for the propagandists and the conspiracy theorists.”

    We haven’t had a legitimate Fourth Estate since the 1970s. How many versions of “reality” can we read, listen to, or watch daily?

    Noam Chomsky nailed it in the 1980s with his Five Filters of the Media. As the Oligarchy took control of the media, decisions are made by CEOs, Board of Directors, and shareholders. Advertisers withheld dollars if editors publish harmful truths.

    It sounds a lot like our government and other “democratic” institutions. Our government no longer holds Oligarchic power accountable, and our Fourth Estate no longer holds power in the government accountable. There are no checks and balances, and our Oligarchy is just fine with it.

    Maybe that’s why our “democracy” ranks 25th globally or is referred to as a “flawed democracy.”

  9. Rant #1: Yes, the local Indianapolis paper is now the “Carmel Star”. Today’s front page story was about Carmel roundabouts. Yesterday the front page story was about how important household weather proofing is. There is no coverage of the state house. No coverage of the city government. The catholic high school hazing of a disabled student read more like a social media post than a factual story. Infotainment is the name of the game.

  10. Todd is quite correct. I’d add the similar attacks on public education. The attacks on teachers salaries and unions in the United States is a repetition of what happens in ALL failed societies. Our “culture” says that “teachers aren’t in it for the money”. True, but they have to have money to live, raise families and be the high quality, rested, researcher we want in our classrooms at every level. A fatigued, hungry and distracted teacher becomes less of a teacher and more of a survivor.

    It is an utter disgrace that we let our beautiful, intelligent children be funded by self-serving, self-indulgent, self-righteous and greedy bastards who either don’t have children in schools, or send them to private schools and whine about tax breaks.

  11. Rant #2: It is frightening to think that right wing organizations just seem to check morals at the door and anything to win is fair. It seems they are working hard to fool all of the people all of the time. Unfortunately, if somebody does uncover such a network and the connections, anybody that has already bought into the original lies will just discount it as fake news. Damage like this my never be undone.

    Am I stuck in my own echo chamber, or are the guys on the other extreme doing these things and I just don’t know it?

  12. Personally, I have a bigger problem with national and international news. The big mystery to me is how can the major news networks and large newspapers afford to keep 1000 stringers spread all over the world, pay them for their reports, and then kill nearly every story they report?

    Example: I’m reading a book about Africa, written by an international journalist, Bryan Mealer, on the payroll of a London newspaper. In almost every chapter Mealer tells a fascinating story that is covered by dozens of reporters, including American media. He is focused on African stories, but he cannot avoid inadvertently relating how often the reporters grease the info-train’s wheels with their publisher’s cash. African locals constantly refer to the reporters as “rich”. One African rebel group says that western publishers spend more money on reporters than on mistresses. Yet, Mealer keeps up a constant complaint about stories being killed by publishers, who nevertheless keep paying the freight for those stories.

    My point is that many of the stories we would like to hear or read about are being covered, internationally and domestically. The journalists are being paid. So, how is it cheaper and/or more profitable for news broadcasters and publishers to kill a thousand interesting stories while repeating the same old news? It seems to me that their expenses remain the same.

    Maybe there’s an opportunity for a publication devoted to “dead” stories–those stories that other publishers pay for and then kill. No need even to pay for the stories. “Hey, Mealer, send us your story; you’ve already been paid for it; we’ll gladly publish it.”

  13. Nature abhors a vacuum and so do the vacated positions of our Fourth Estate, so the right wing is filling such vacated positions with their propaganda-laden garbage which, without competition, is the news being soaked up by the unwary, “news” manufactured in alternative fact factories and refined for public consumption by writers for WSJ and others. Result? The news is what we say it is, and what we say isn’t news is excluded.

    Business models and working newsrooms are at odds with one another in this cyber age and advertising realities, of course, and I have no answer on how to reverse this situation in a back to the future business arrangement where we can have both good press coverage and decent profit margins simultaneously. I will leave that to the accountants and bankers, but something should be done and quickly before alternative fact systems become fact systems for consumers of “news.”

  14. In “1984” Big Brother won. Perception is truth. There is no reality. What people get from advertising/fake news/propaganda/brainwashing is what’s true because the alternative is thinking and acting like the government is ours. Like we are responsible. Like our role is more than as observers rooting for the home team of what’s best for us.

  15. I never was impressed with the Indianapolis Star even before Gannett bought it. It was full of Right Wing Reactionary columnists, guest columnists and editorials. There were a few writers in The Star that qualified from the Left, overwhelming it was Corporatism and Evangelical Bible Thumping sold as Conservatism.

    Today’s on line Star is typical, Sports, Sports and more Sports. Yeah, there was a brawl in Circle Center Mall. Difficult to fight your way through all the pop-up ads that slow the Web Page down.

    Robert Mackey has a good column in The Intercept: Republicans Urge Americans to Follow Them Through the Fox News Looking Glass on Ukraine.

    In the column there is a quote:
    Americans who do not get all of their information about Ukraine from Fox News or right-wing Twitter and Facebook feeds have no doubt been baffled by the Republican cross-examination of witnesses called to give public testimony in the House impeachment hearings.

    Virginia Tilley, a political scientist at Southern Illinois University, suggested on Twitter that making the impeachment hearings nearly unwatchable might even be the Republican strategy.

    Scariest thing about our national crisis: lying GOP has made even impeachment hearing so repellent that few can bear to listen. They win by just repelling us with inane babble, demoralizing the principled with shrieking stupidities. Is this how democracy dies? Through BS fatigue? https://theintercept.com/2019/11/19/republicans-use-impeachment-hearings-smear-ukrainian-helped-expose-manafort/

  16. A vital issue, all.

    Yes, education is a root cause – especially civic education – we have pounded on that.

    But, consider the demise of reading, in general. Haven’t seen any research lately, but no doubt the 30’s, 20’s and younger read “paper of all kinds”much less and what they read is shorter and with more visuals than most of us.

    Not sure the above can be changed…how about leverage it? On-line, graphic novel/informatics news from real journalists locally? Could be relatively low-cost….

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