Tag Archives: journalism

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….

 

Misinformation And A Shared Reality

Kathleen Hall Jamison is a towering figure in academic journalism–she has authored numerous books and articles on the relationship between media and politics, and she founded and still oversees Factcheck.org.

Politico recently ran an interview with Jamison in which she made some important distinctions–between truth and fact, and between consequential and inconsequential misinformation.

Journalism is the reporting of fact. Truth is a more fraught concept. In common with most people, Jamison says she hears the word “truth” with a capital T. The word thus capitalized tends to confirm finality: I have discovered the Truth and need not investigate further.

We live in a world in which our understanding is progressing. Knowledge is evolving. There are “truths” in the universe—truths about physics, for example. There are “truths” inside a religious universe—presuppositional things that people treat as truth.

Rather than speaking of Truth-with-a-capital-T, Jamison is more comfortable saying that “there is knowledge that is more or less certain”–what I’d call “facts on the ground.”

She also provides a clear-headed summary of the situation in which Americans currently find ourselves.

So, that said, we live in an environment in which institutional trust is down. The challenge to established knowledge is now greater than it once was. The institutions that certify what we can know are not as trusted as they once were—in part because they have done things that demonstrate that they aren’t able to be trusted (at least some of them in some circumstances). You’ve got more factors challenging institutional forms of knowledge production, and sometimes that’s healthy—trying to hold them accountable is a goal of journalism. Some of them are more trustworthy than others; those that are more trustworthy are trustworthy more times than some would think. There are methods underlying trustworthiness of knowledge. Transparency is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Reproducibility is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. A culture of self-critique and of critique is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Those are norms of science. Those are also norms of good journalism.

We live in a world in which some good tendencies—the tendency to critique, the tendency to be skeptical—have gotten out of hand. And as a result, and we live in a polarized environment in which, for ideologically convenient ends, people who see ideologically inconvenient “knowledge” have more ways to discredit it with fewer places to anchor the knowledge.

When it comes to the distinction between information that is and is not consequential, Jamison gives a shout-out to the judiciary, noting that the courts have established rules for determining what constitutes relevant evidence and determining its credibility. Those mechanisms allowed the courts to arrive at a common conclusion when faced with the false assertions of the Trump campaign. We aren’t without tools for determining what is knowable and what is not.

That said, Jamison’s concern is with consequential facts.

With a lot of things, whether or not they’re factual doesn’t really affect anybody. I mean, they’re useful to know at a cocktail party, but they’re not consequential.

So how do we understand what is consequential? She provides an excellent analogy:

If you’re going to teach kids civics, I don’t care whether they know when Paul Revere rode. I don’t even care if they know that Paul Revere rode. In fact, I don’t care whether Paul Revere rode.

I do care that they understand there are three branches of government. I care that they understand that there are checks and balances built into our system. I care that they understand we have a veto—and what that means, when you exercise it, and how you override it. I care that they understand that there’s an independent Supreme Court; that we’ve set up the Supreme Court to be different and that it’s not a political branch of government. Those are consequential. They are consequential because if you understand them, you act and think differently about our system of government. The willingness to protect our system is, in part, a function of understanding our system, and understanding that our system has presuppositional facts—consequential facts—under it. If I don’t understand those things, then if the Supreme Court issues a series of unpopular decisions that I don’t like, I’m more likely to say that maybe we should get rid of the Supreme Court.

It all comes back to operating in a shared reality. That’s especially important to our ability to communicate, and to be contributing citizens in  a functional political system.

The GOP Retreat From Empiricism

I am hardly the only person to observe that Trump’s election was a predictable consequence of the fact that, over a number of years, the GOP has morphed into something bearing very little resemblance to a rational, center-right political party.

Political pundits differ on when the changes began. Certainly, Nixon’s “Southern strategy” laid the groundwork for the GOP’s growing appeal to racial grievance. Stuart Stevens’ recent book It Was All A Lie detailed five decades of “hypocrisy and self-delusion” dating all the way back to the civil rights legislation of the early 1960s.

A recent article from Pressthink, a project of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU, reminded readers of the 2004 Ron Suskind article about the George W. Bush White House–the article that gave us the now-ubiquitous quote about the “reality-based community.” Suskind was writing about concerns voiced by so-called  “establishment” Republicans who were increasingly encountering what Suskind called  “a confusing development” within the Bush White House. Suddenly, asking for corroborating evidence, expressing doubts, or raising facts that didn’t fit an official narrative were considered disqualifying or disloyal acts for allies of the President.

Knowing what you know now, about candidate Trump, listen to these quotes from 2004…

* “He dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts.” —Bruce Bartlett, former Reagan and Bush-the-elder adviser.

* “In meetings, I’d ask if there were any facts to support our case. And for that, I was accused of disloyalty!” —Christie Whitman, head of the EPA under Bush.

* “If you operate in a certain way — by saying this is how I want to justify what I’ve already decided to do, and I don’t care how you pull it off — you guarantee that you’ll get faulty, one-sided information.” —Paul O’Neill, Treasure Secretary under Bush.

* “Open dialogue, based on facts, is not seen as something of inherent value. It may, in fact, create doubt, which undercuts faith. It could result in a loss of confidence in the decision-maker and, just as important, by the decision-maker.” —Suskind’s words.

* “A cluster of particularly vivid qualities was shaping George W. Bush’s White House through the summer of 2001: a disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism, a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners.” —Suskind.

* “You’re outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don’t read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way [Bush] walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it’s good for us. Because you know what those folks don’t like? They don’t like you!” — Mark McKinnon, media adviser to Bush, explaining the political logic to Suskind.

That last quote, by Mark McKinnon, goes a long way toward explaining the root emotions of today’s Trump supporters, whose overriding need is apparently to “own the libs”–no matter what the cost to the country or their own prospects.

Suskind’s article was about the growing tensions within the Republican coalition. When he talked to Bruce Bartlett, Christie Whitman, Paul O’Neill and other loyal Republicans, they conveyed alarm over what he termed “the retreat from empiricism.”

It wasn’t only Republicans who were retreating from empiricism and reality–liberals had their anti-vaxxers  and people hysterically opposed to genetically modified foods–but they lacked the influence on their party that climate change deniers and birthers had in the GOP, and that asymmetry posed a “false equivalence” problem for journalists trying to be (excuse the phrase) fair and balanced.

Worse, fact-checking Trump had little effect, because he wasn’t trying to make reference to reality in what he said. He was trying to substitute “his” reality for the one depicted in news reports.

The goal of totalitarian propaganda is to sketch out a consistent system that is simple to grasp, one that both constructs and simultaneously provides an explanation for grievances against various out-groups. It is openly intended to distort reality, partly as an expression of the leader’s power. Its open distortion of reality is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness.

On November 3d, creating an alternate reality worked for 70 million Americans.

Houston, we have a problem.

 

A Meditation On Media

Is our current media environment to blame for America’s social dysfunction? Two critical questions:

In a large and diverse country, the ability of citizens to participate in the democratic process on the basis of informed decisions is heavily dependent upon the quality, factual accuracy, objectivity and completeness of the information available to them. Do Americans have the ability to select credible information from the incessant competition for eyeballs and clicks?

In a world where the news and entertainment environments are increasingly fragmented, where a media landscape populated with broadly shared information and common cultural references is disappearing, can Americans even conduct a truly public conversation?

Our ability to devise answers to these questions is constrained both by America’s commitment to freedom of speech and press—a commitment set out in and protected by the First Amendment—and a recognition that efforts by government to control what citizens can access online would be more dangerous than the current situation (assuming such control would even be possible in the age of the Internet).

So how did we get here? And far more importantly, how do we get out?

A series of new technologies challenged and ultimately defeated journalistic norms that had developed over the years. Cable television ushered in a virtually unlimited number of channels, upending government rules created for an era in which the federal government owned and auctioned off the limited number of usable broadcast frequencies. The numerous new cable networks made possible by the new technologies were unconstrained by the earlier requirement that their use of the airwaves be consistent with “the public interest.”  The subsequent development of the Internet greatly reduced the costs that had previously prevented the entry of numbers of would-be publishers by dramatically reducing the  investment needed to compete with established newspapers and magazines. Suddenly, virtually anyone with a computer, an internet connection and the ability to generate content could claim to be news sources. Professional journalists found themselves competing for readers’ attention with thousands of webpages, in many cases produced by persons and organizations unacquainted with and unrestrained by professional norms and ethics.

By the time the digital revolution took hold, much of cable news (and virtually all of talk radio before it) had already reverted to the explicit partisanship of earlier days. Fox News may have been the most effective; it shrewdly attacked and undermined the ethic of objectivity by elevating balance as the metric by which journalism was to be judged. The network’s motto, “Fair and balanced” reconceptualized journalism as stenography: suggesting that only “he said, she said” reporting was “fair,” and that failure to devote equivalent air time or column inches to “both sides” equated to media bias. Efforts to achieve “balance” (and thus “fairness”) led to reporters giving equal time to arguments for and against settled science or law; the reality of climate change, for example, was portrayed as an ongoing debate, despite the fact that some 97% of scientists are on one side of that debate and only a few outliers (mostly financed by fossil fuel interests) continue to take an opposing view. Such an approach to reporting leaves readers with the impression that matters of established fact are still unresolved. Balance so conceived does not require objectivity; worse, the pursuit of balance perversely operates to relieve journalists of a vital part of their job: determining, verifying and reporting what is and is not factual, so that the public can make genuinely informed decisions.

The great promise of the Internet was that it would make much more information available, and that Americans’ access to information would no longer be limited by the gatekeeping function of the legacy media. Online, many more stories could be told and they could be told in much more depth. Those undeniable gains, however, have come at a considerable and largely unanticipated cost—notably, the return of an intensely partisan media, wide dissemination of spin, conspiracy theories and outright propaganda, a massive loss of local reporting (especially about local government), the hegemony of new and enormous online platforms (most prominently Google, Facebook and Twitter), growing and corrosive public uncertainty about the accuracy of all news, and the near disappearance of a truly mass media.

It’s one thing to disagree about something that everyone can see. Different people can look at a photo, a piece of art, or a draft of a pending bill, and disagree about its meaning or, in the case of proposed legislation, whether it is a good idea, or would be effective in achieving its purported purpose. In a fragmented media environment that gives disproportionate time and space to assorted “pundits” of varying philosophies and degrees of probity (talking heads are much cheaper than investigative reporters), however, the American people are far too often not seeing the same thing, hearing the same analyses, or occupying the same reality.

Today’s media environment is reminiscent of the time before cellphones when a friend and I agreed to meet for lunch at “the tearoom.” Back then, two department stores in our city had tearooms; I went to one while she went to the other. This made conversation impossible, in much the same way that our current media environment, which places citizens in different “rooms” or conversations, impedes genuine communication.

There is a difference between an audience and a public. Journalism is about more than dissemination of news and other information; it’s about the creation of shared awareness. It’s about occupying the same reality (or eating at the same tearoom).  It’s about enabling and facilitating meaningful communication. As the information environment continues to fracture into smaller and more widely dispersed niches, Americans are losing the common ground upon which public communication and discourse depend. When cities had one or two widely-read newspapers, subscribers were exposed to the same headlines and ledes, even if they didn’t read through the articles. When large numbers of Americans tuned into Walter Cronkite’s newscast or to one of his two network competitors, they heard reports of the same events.  Recent research showing that political polarization increases after local newspapers close shouldn’t surprise us.

If today’s citizens do not share a reasonable amount of accurate information, if different constituencies access different media resources and occupy incommensurate realities, what happens to the concept of a public? To the ideal of informed debate? How do such citizens engage in self-government? If I point to a piece of furniture and say it’s a table, and you insist that, no, it is a chair, how do we decide how to use it? Worse still, if my description of the furniture goes to one audience, and your contrary description goes to another, to whom do we transmit a correction? How do we counter spin, propaganda or even honest mistakes when we have no way of determining who received those original, erroneous messages?

If the ultimate effects of our current information environment are unknown, the intermediate effects are less ambiguous. Citizens who choose different sources for their  news and information tend to choose sources that solidify and confirm their tribal affiliations, reinforce their fears, and make it more difficult to understand the perspectives of those with whom they disagree. Worse, the growth of uncertainty about the validity of what we encounter online has undermined trust in a wide variety of social and governmental institutions. Today, the most effective way to censor something is to sow distrust rather than by suppressing or muzzling the speech itself.

In the November, 2016 election, top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined. The ability of social media platforms to target recipients for information based upon sophisticated analyses of individual preferences threatens the very existence of a genuinely public sphere in which a true marketplace of ideas could operate. We are clearly in uncharted waters.

The obvious question is: what can be done? How can Americans take advantage of the substantial benefits that come with access to virtually unlimited information while avoiding the pitfalls of atomization, inaccuracy and outright propaganda? How can we ensure that enough citizens share enough information to engage in informed debate and  political conversation?

It’s too late to put the genie back in the lamp.