The Problem Isn’t “Fake” News–It’s No News

The Indianapolis Business Journal reports that former Indiana Lieutenant Governor John Mutz has made a two million dollar gift to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. The gift will establish a Chair in Local News that will focus on local news sustainability–a focus that is desperately needed. 

The article quoted Mutz’ reasoning:

My political experience has dramatically shown me how important reliable local news sources are to local governments and economies,” Mutz, 85, told IBJ. “Without it we may lose our democratic society and that would be a tragedy. I’m greatly concerned about local communities that are essentially news deserts. 

I have frequently posted about the dire consequences of this lack of local news. Not only do communities lose a necessary government watchdog, they lose an essential aspect of being a community.

In October, the Washington Post ran an article exploring one such “news desert”–following the loss of a small community’s only newspaper. Ashley Spinks had been the managing editor, and most recently the only journalist, at a weekly newspaper in a rural community in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. As the article noted,

Spinks took photos of the first day of school, laid out the newspaper and edited freelance pieces. She attended Floyd town council meetings, covered Confederate monument debates, did award-winning reporting on the water system problems and wrote news-you-can-use pieces, like the one helpfully headlined “Don’t feed the bears!”

Spinks had been interviewed by a local public radio outlet about cuts made to the paper after it was acquired by a corporate owner, Lee Enterprises. When she responded candidly, she was summarily fired, and Floyd lost its local news. As the report notes, Floyd is not alone. A recent study found that some 6,000 journalism jobs and 300 newspapers have simply vanished since 2018, and more outlets are disappearing since the onset of the pandemic-related recession.

Floyd’s Mayor told the Post that the newspaper had been the primary source of information on what’s happening in local government, and shared his concerns about citizens turning to unvetted social media posts for information.

Washington Monthly recently ran a series titled “Can Journalism be saved?”After repeating the statistics on journalism jobs lost and newspapers lost, the first article in the series reminded readers that the losses were industry-wide.

The damage ranges from the shutting-down of quality national magazines like Governing and Pacific Standard to large layoffs at online outlets like BuzzFeed and VICE. But the greatest shrinkage is happening at the local level, among large metropolitan dailies, neighborhood and small-town weeklies, and outlets that have long covered Black, Hispanic, and other minority and ethnic communities. As of last year, two-thirds of counties in America lacked a local daily newspaper. Half had only one newspaper, often just a weekly. And more than 200—mostly poor, rural counties—had none at all. Those news outlets that remain are often what are referred to as ghost papers, with few staff and little local reporting. (Local TV news has declined far less, but tends to cover stories that newspapers originate, and with less depth.)

The only remaining newspaper in Indianapolis, The Indianapolis Star, is one of those “ghost” papers. The Star was never a great newspaper, but years of corporate ownership have decimated editorial staff and stripped it of what reporting depth it may once have had.

The decline in what one scholar has called “the journalism of verification’ has been toxic to the functioning of American democracy.

One study found that in communities where newspapers close and there are no reporters keeping an eye on the decisions of local officials, municipal government wages, deficits, and borrowing costs rise. Local news outlets tend to be far more trusted by readers on both sides of the political aisle than national publications. When they disappear, citizens turn to national news sources, often partisan ones, or rely on social media for information. The result is more party-line voting and small-town residents mobilizing against mythical antifa infiltrations. Indeed, as this magazine has reported, the rise of authoritarian politics in America correlates to an alarming degree with the waning of local news.

When there isn’t a trusted source of local news that also carries some verified national reporting, it becomes much easier to construct an information bubble from social media posts and internet conspiracy sites.

The Washington Monthly series identifies several ways government might reinvigorate journalism without jeopardizing editorial independence–much as the Founders did by establishing favorable postal rates for newspapers.

Whatever the mechanism, a solution is  critical and overdue. 

 

29 thoughts on “The Problem Isn’t “Fake” News–It’s No News

  1. I think the IBJ is the best paper in Indy. Once I realized it was not only about business, I began to view it as my local source. Let’s give it some credit.

  2. “When there isn’t a trusted source of local news that also carries some verified national reporting, it becomes much easier to construct an information bubble from social media posts and internet conspiracy sites.”

    Sheila’s quote above certainly applies to the Indianapolis Star, always a right-leaning publication when privately owned by the Pulliam family, publishes less news of any importance since owned by Gannett, Inc. Today the Indianapolis Star, technically a factory setting, has the primary goal of anchor for the slowly dying Circle Centre Mall. Not the job of any city newspaper or small town source of information.

    After decades of beginning my days with the daily news wherever I lived, I miss my morning newspaper; but I certainly do not miss the Indianapolis Star.

    “Whatever the mechanism, a solution is critical and overdue.”

  3. The paper in Marble Falls, TX was named The River Cities Daily Tribune. I wrote op-ed columns weekly for that paper for 5 years. The owners were VERY conservative as was the entire county of Burnet. Our editorial page won several awards from the Texas state journalism organizations including best-in-state for small papers. Alas, in 2013, after President Obama was re-elected, the ownership closed the paper. Its remaining business was printing shopping guides for the county.

    Today’s blog sounds typical across the country. Instead, everyone has their face buried in a “smart” phone surfing for stuff that confirms their biases.

  4. This is more of an economics question than anything else. The better question is, “How do we pay for a local news ecosystem?”

    And it gets even more interesting when you talk about the urban/rural divides. The folks in the country watch regional TV news, which informs them of what is happening in general but then what happens in the evening? This is where Fox’s model has created lots of division in our country.

    Large urban centers have newspapers, and most of those are educational and liberal as all media should be.

    Also, I don’t think Verizon or ATT, or Comcast should charge us access to the internet. Our federal government should make the internet a public utility available to all in exchange for a tax.

    That would free up around $100-200 from a household budget. A portion of that could be used to fund local news sources.

    The Fourth Estate, like healthcare, should not be part of our capitalist system – these are rights that we must have as individuals. If the Fourth Estate weren’t important in society, the Founders would not have included it in our constitution.

  5. Just to set the record straight, the”Founder” who set favorable postal rates for newspapers and magazines was Ben Franklin, our first Postmaster General. He was also the publisher of the “Saturday Evening Post.” Some might call that “enlightened” self interest.

  6. The local news industry killed itself. Back in the 1990’s they started experimenting with the Internet, and some idiot came up with the idea that you could still push the advertising (and make money) while giving away the content. It turns out that nobody ever did the math and when you are being paid $0.0025 per view of the advertisement, it takes a lot of views to add up to the $1000 quarter page ad you used to sell. Plus, do you know what happens when people get something for free? They perceive that it has no value.

    The news outlets have pulled back on this model somewhat, so now you only get to read 5 or 10 articles for free (unless you clear your browser cookies) and then they want you to create an account. The problem now is that there are companies out there who’s main line of business is not news (Google and Yahoo) that will show you most of the news content for free if you happen to do a search and claim that they don’t owe the newspaper anything. Information has value and those people that produce it in a coherent form should be compensated for it.

    I still have an Indy Star subscription and the main reason is they have a great comics page. They want to charge me $12.99 for the pathetic content they do have, so about once a year I have to call to cancel my subscription and they will give me a special offer of $4.99 a month. The only way it is even bearable to read the Indy Star is with the “e-edition” physical facsimile of the paper. The website is painful to use because the priority is not to show you the news articles, but to present the flashing and blinking and jumping online advertisements.

    IBJ seems to have hit the sweet spot, still selling subscriptions, still doing print, with an online facsimile of the printed version, with well timed emails feeding you either what really is hot breaking news, or interesting and topical content from last weeks edition continually driving you to a web site that minimizes the online advertising. Plus they continue to add staff and reporters and are making a profit.

    I don’t know what could possibly work if you live in a metro area of less than a million people.

    I have a subscription to the IBJ and the NY Times as well.

  7. Sheila,

    It might be helpful for your readers to bullet a list some of the suggestions in the Washington Monthly. Was one to set up a NPR-type organization for news?

  8. Todd brings up another point that most people get their news through the broadcast media. Anymore I hate having to watch a video to get information. The local news is what I call newsertainment. Just like social media, broadcast media gets more views if you have a emotional reaction to what you are viewing, and local news outlets are masters of this low information emotional manipulation.

    If someone did not take the time to transcribe the content of the broadcast and I can read in 15 seconds, what it would take a 3 minute video to show me, then chances are the informational content is so low to be worthless. This same rule almost always applies to podcasts.

  9. Your comments are verified by ‘trump the tweeter’ and company. This is not an Indy issue but rather a national issue. 50yrs ago Indy had both the News and the Star, the Region had both the Hammond Times and the Gary (Tribune?), Cincinnati had both the Enquirer and the Post. Not only have ‘small cities lost their papers, but large cities have been severely reduced.
    Conversation with my 50 yr old son, STEM hs teacher in Cal, “Dad, no one reads anymore, they depend on Facebook and tweets for the news.”. The Sacramento Bee has lost about 50% of its readers in the past 30 yrs. The information that is read has become the sub-title of each column. You are in the distinct minority with your comments Sheila.

  10. Todd absolutely brought up some good points!

    I think Lester kind of hit the nail on the head with his NPR suggestion.

    I love watching Turner Classic Movies. And a theme from many of these movies that deal with news reporting, it’s the average muckraker that uncovers the shenanigans of politicians and the corporate elites!

    News organizations that would be funded by grants by the government, as NPR is, would be a boon to the local informational stream.

    Corporate ownership of news reporting organizations is just a poison pill waiting to be swallowed.

    Look at how Sinclair has moved in to so many communities across the country where radio might be the only thing people get there opinion pieces from, newspapers and many of those regions are long forgotten, and only a few national papers might be available. So without any counter narrative, Sinclair rules the roost by planting the seeds of right-wing fanaticism in the heads of those who are the most receptive.

    Sinclair tends to use a religious bent in their news construct. And, that really should be a forbidden fruit so to speak.

    There are other blobs out there, slowly moving across the country gobbling up small radio stations and newspapers and local television hubs to promote an agenda that is detrimental to the general public.

    The FCC was supposed to prevent these things from happening by not allowing conglomerates to move in and consolidate these important local institutions.

    So, as the FCC has become more politicized, it’s used as a weapon to bring damaging and unrelenting, divisive information right into the living rooms of America’s families. I think you can compare it to something like the movie “Body Snatchers!”

    When people are subject to the constant Din of one specific slant on anything, eventually they will slowly move towards that slant.

    Why do you think the right constantly attacks NPR? They want to defund it, because it’s not going along with the program. Their program! So, the sad thing is, everyone sat around and let it happen! That needs to be changed right now. Todd and Lester’s opinions on it are exactly correct and, the warning definitely should be heeded 😱❗

    When there’s a vacuum, something will always fill it! And there are right-wing nationalist organizations and fascist organizations and Protestant Evangelical organizations gladly willing to fill that vacuum with their poison, that should never be allowed in a civil society!

  11. My project, CommonGoodGoverning, uses Google Alerts and web-subscriptions to read OpEds and LTEs from around the country. There is no reason why a combination of reasonably-priced subscriptions with government/foundation support couldn’t get local news out there without any paper.

    Politico or POGO is already experimenting with local efforts.

  12. Sheila, a very timely important issue: support credible local journalism. I like Lester’s idea for NPR strategy and model for accountable journalism online supported by public/private funding for sustainable source of local news. Although I miss turning the pages with a good cup of coffee to start the day early.

  13. Lester,

    I personally think that’s a brilliant idea! I think you should post more information on that, and links so that some of us can actually help in the project.

  14. i do the media online,mainly i follow a few subjects, not to overwhelm the hard drive thats near capacity in my head. some news online is far more into such subjects,and lean on some. when covid was being relized,it was DW.com that was on the ball in germany, near after the first of the year. i was getting far more info,issues,and who,was getting hit,and how fast.. questions like,italy having so many was a direct conclusion,they couldnt test everyone after they died,, but followed thru when tests became available..so far,, germany has less than 13000 deaths today,because the news media there has made it place to inform,with goverment help… like BBC its free,and the journalists are on cue, to be acurate in their reportings.. such news also slams many of the way our government has acted over the last 4 years..labor, i seek the news venue of united steel workers,and teamsters,though its a wave at ya, its easy to pick apart,and find what the issue is and where,and why. big ticket events get my attention,but as far as the working class need to knows,i spend my time picking through many news sites. The Guardian has kept a good run on things as al,jezzera,if ya want a take on how,others see us,and why..ya might want to look it over and relize how this present admin has distroyed us far more internationally than supporting vietnam.. ilike the feel of a newspaper,it was bought home at night by my grandfather, he sported the NYT and newark evening news on his commute from jersey city. a union man,and very well at knowlege of his eviroment. i read them when he was done,and today,when i see a newspaper sitting on a bench or table,i open it and take a look, who wrote it,and why.. i leave my mailed copy of The Nation like this. somewhere in dead red NoDak, hopefully someone with any common sense will be enlighten at the journalism,and find fox a propaganda machine for the ones who need headline news over content…fox sells ads to, and many of those companies can also loose customers,over content…

  15. Lester.
    lets see where this goes,i like the idea,and if edited by someone who cares about the content. with real time in events, it couldnt fail. the younger gens have relied on the ear bud method to be drawn in to that endless glass window we use.. the next gens will have to be drawn in,with facts and why,from past issues..combine some past history why this or that concluded the issues,and why this one is going that way…(opinions may reduce or,increase ones knowlege,and make a door for someone to seek further info on a subject)a small bio on the writer,at the bottom and a way to connect with this writer.. legitimize the writer,if they exist… that is a mandate,along with maybe a few other writers of the same story.i like comparing the stories,and often get more background to make a decision when theres more to work with..when bills and laws are being constructed,insert the peoples names who are against and why,many of mcconnels moves could have made him unelectable last round if,Americans were informed of who he screwed,and why… if you start such a site,let us know, some ideas from,this well educated mob would help,since we still remember wrapping fish in the leftover newsprit..

  16. There’s a wonderful novel titled “News of the World” by Paulette Jiles about post Civil War Texas and how that state got its news via an itinerant news reader. The book doesn’t solve any of the problems Sheila brings up, but it shows just how hungry people were to hear about events from outside their isolated towns.

    My interest in newspapers arose from delivering 120 Washington Posts daily to homes in a town in Western Maryland. My habit of reading a paper every morning became so ingrained that I seethe in anger at the barely worth reading Charleston paper that now refuses to deliver in my community 60 miles from where it is published. I still scan it through an online subscription, but that’s about as satisfying as drinking near beer on a hot day.

    The extent of their guilt is questionable, but the lowered availability of newspapers fits nicely into the long running Republican scheme known as the dumbing down of America. Since they fail so miserably at everything they try to do (except for passing laws to enrich rich people) how have they been so successful at dumbing us down? Maybe they’ve got Russian help.

  17. Electronics and capitalism (destruction of the press room and advertising) have turned the press industry into something akin to coal mining in West Virginia, and I have my doubts that such industry (or profession) can be rescued from a continuing downturn in readership, a robust readership that can still pay for the Brooks and Friedmans of the NYT but out of business for local papers and Gannett AP dispatches and weather reports. However, I remain open to the idea of a rescue and return to the journalism of days gone by as advanced by some in this blog while having no ideas of my own, so go for it, Lester.

  18. Terry, my career was with the YMCA. Local newspapers bought memberships for news carriers and the Y turned that into a social network to foster development of spirit, mind and body coupled with entrepreneurial leadership development. Some friendly competition to see who could toss a paper the farthest into a defined target (make believe front porch) while mobile on a bike. The successful newsboys wore fresh brand new Levis’ and rode a cool (Vespa?) scooter to school.

  19. It’s worth asking who killed the local news? The public? Capitalists? Oligarchs? Politicians? Technology? Publishers? Journalists? The economy pushing people out of rural America, the museum of the past, to the cities where the future emerges?

    And then, will the loss motivate solutions to the problem?

  20. I don’t know if the Rushville Republican is still being published in my former home town. I hope so. For me the question is how rural communities communicate important council meetings, local events and issues to keep their citizenry informed. After all civic engagement, starts at the local level.

    Someone has just started a newspaper for Pike township. There are reports from the Fire Dept. and they posted those running for the school board. I hope they are able to continue spreading the news here.

    I also wonder about local radio stations. I have noticed that WITT has some broadcasts of local council meetings.

    Obviously the loss of local newspapers has further created our divide. I would hazard a guess that many rural communities turn to Fox, not PBS, not NPR.

  21. Comcast went from a provider of cable TV to entire vertical and horizontal conglomerate. At least here in Indiana they were given certain geographic areas – It was a monopoly but they were not under the control like other utilities such as gas and electric are.

    I would say The Star during the Pulliam days had a Right Wing Corporatist bent. It seemed rather obvious The Star did not want to step on certain political toes or local oligarchs.

    It was Bill Clinton and his Telecommunications Act of 1996, One of the most controversial titles was Title 3 (“Cable Services”), which allowed for media cross-ownership. In this context, the 1996 Telecommunications Act was designed to allow fewer, but larger corporations, to operate more media enterprises within a sector (such as Clear Channel’s dominance in radio), and to expand across media sectors (through relaxation of cross-ownership rules), thus enabling massive and historic consolidation of media in the United States. These changes amounted to a near-total rollback of New Deal market regulation.

    What this allowed was for the Big Fish to gobble up the little fish.

    When the atmospherics are aligned I listen to the Chicago radio stations. They have the usual sports channels and talk radio. They do have other stations that actually tell you what is happening in Chicago, news weather and traffic.

    Here in Indianapolis the radio stations are zeros in terms of local news.

    Our local Public Broadcasting station has Lawrence Welk on every Saturday evening – Talk about setting your clocks back 50 years.

  22. Do you know that in many small towns, say with populations between 40,000 and 100,000, such as Anderson, Indiana, you can buy a weekly slot for your own radio talk show for less than you pay for cable television. A couple of sponsors might soon join your program and pay the slot fee. Many of you would be really good with your own talk show.

  23. Amen – and most of the”news” we see on local TV stations is not news but human interest stories.

    The problem is much broader than just no news. It is how history has failed to be taught to us – at least those of us who are over 50. What we were taught in school wasn’t completely wrong, but it was incomplete, biased, racist and left out important details. It was mostly taught by teachers who majored in football and minored in some sort of social studies – just enough to get a license. Why did I not know about the Tulsa massacre or the Mankato massacre until this summer? Why did I not know about redlining until 2-3 years ago? In the 1960s, why were we not taught that Ho Chi Minh was an admirer of American democracy but Wilson refused to see him at the Paris peace talks after WW1? Why did we not know that the Americans left the defeated Japanese in charge of Vietnam after WW2 until the French colonial system could be reinstalled? The Vietnam war was based on racism against Vietnamese but I did not understand that at the time and my teachers should have taught me that.

    War and racism is just too profitable for those in positions of economic power and influence. Eisenhower warned us about the military industrial complex.

    We have been duped.

  24. I’m still hoping that one or more of our liberal billionaires will buy the three or four major cable “news” channels and turn them into real news channels. There has long been such a thing as hostile takeovers of businesses, so why not of cable networks?

    However, if I were a billionaire, I would not buy newspaper enterprises, simply because enough people will never again be willing to read newsprint for their news. Which kind of points out who is at fault in regard to newspaper decline.

  25. Let’s be clear- this is not about “paper” – this is about “news”. Real journalism on paper will be gone in not too long. Already, the NY Times and Washington Post have massive subscribers…not to the paper versions.

  26. Say what you will about cable news and social media; CNN just had breaking news of Trump’s pending full drawdown of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq by January 15th. Military heads are preparing orders for troops to prepare to move out.

    Trump arranged for Turkey to take over Syria once he deserted the Kurds and Russian troops moved into our deserted bases. Who will he arrange to take over Afghanistan and Iraq for Russian troops to move in? Is this why Pompeo was suddenly sent on his world tour; has he been making arrangements for takeovers once our troops have deserted Afghanistan and Iraq?

  27. Lester,

    Sorry for the delay, I had a doctor’s appointment.

    Look, I think that’s a wonderful idea you have! You can figure out how to pull this off, I’m all in on it.

    My email address is johnpsorg@gmail.com

    Like I said, I’m not often inspired by much, this seems like an extremely beneficial idea.

    Every single person should have the ability to see the real news, what’s happening around the country and in their communities. Without some fanatical or religious slant plastered over the top of it.

  28. Lester – I actually like print papers, but I guess I show my age – now, i read the Times — on line (Birthday gift from my family) – it beats “Times fingers” (known to print reads – your hands turn black from the ink)

    Which brings us to Dan’s point – I understand the dilemma that the TImes faced – Pricing is funny – too high and you don’t get enough subscribers, but at $5/month, their online circulation would have soared beyond the money they make with their high priced rates — but that would have ended their paper subscriptions with its lucrative print ads, in the NYC metro area, hence higher rates. Of course, that last time I bought the Washington Post (late last year), I think it was $1.50 for a single issue.

    I miss local papers – I am not certain if it is good or bad, but I never miss the Star (barely a newspaper)- I dropped my subscription long ago.

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