Tag Archives: local news

The Death Of Local News

A recent story in the Statehouse File began with an all-too-familiar report.

Two years ago, Indiana had 70 daily newspapers. Now there are fewer than 50, and over the last year, 13 paid circulation newspapers in the state closed their doors.

The story relayed the personal experience of editors and others at the papers that closed, and went on enumerate the consequences for local communities that have lost their newspapers–either entirely, or by “ghosting” in the wake of acquisitions by companies like Gannett (now part of the even more rapacious Gatehouse).

Citizens who have lost what we used to call “watchdog journalism” are significantly disadvantaged by not knowing what is going on in their communities. Studies show losses in community cohesion, voter turnout and civic participation. Taxpayers take a hit, too– a recent study, “Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance,” showed that newspaper closures were followed by higher costs of issuing bonds. (Presumably, bond purchasers anticipate a higher degree of risk when no one is watching the store.)

It isn’t just Indiana. The Guardian recently considered the threat to journalism’s future posed by the degree to which hedge funds are snapping up distressed properties.

As the pandemic recedes in the United States, few businesses may emerge so transformed as local and regional newspapers.

More than 70 local newsrooms have closed over the past 15 months, with hundreds of media jobs lost, as the already difficult financial conditions in the industry intensified during the crisis. By some estimates, a staggering 2,100 local newspapers, or one in four, have closed in the US since 2005.

But into the carnage a new breed of owner has emerged: one that has industry veterans and media observers deeply worried about the future of journalism in America and its ability to act as part of a functioning democracy.

According to a recent analysis, hedge funds or private equity firms now control half of US daily newspapers, including some of the largest newspaper groups in the country: Tribune, McClatchy and MediaNews Group.

Needless to say, these hedge funds have zero commitment to journalism. Their entire focus is on the bottom line and the return on their investments. Groups like Alden Capital have earned a reputation for ruthlessness by dramatically cutting editorial staff and selling off assets to boost profits.

As the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review has noted,

The debate we need to have is do we value these newspapers as an investment like a car dealership or a pawn shop, or do they have a different function in the community? I argue that they do, and they’re important to the way we function every day, but local communities need to buy into that idea.

If professional, verifiable news gathering is lost, a significant percentage of the American public will be left to the not-so-tender-mercies of the Breitbarts and their leftwing analogs.  Aside from bias, these outlets add to the increasing nationalization of news and politics–they aren’t replacing the local newspapers we’ve lost.

It will be interesting to see what happens in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the  New York Times reports that– following the “ghosting” of the Standard Times, the local paper, employees decided to create an alternative. They created a digital paper, The New Bedford Light.

The Light, which has no print edition, is free to readers. It does not accept advertising, relying on donations, grants and sponsorships from local businesses. It plans deep community involvement, including media literacy workshops for residents who might become contributors.

It is largely following a playbook for digital nonprofit news sites prepared by the Institute for Nonprofit News, a group that guides start-ups and emphasizes editorial independence and financial transparency.

According to the Times, similar nonprofit news sites are appearing across the country. There are hundreds now online, and more than 50 have gone up in the last two years.

None, to the best of my knowledge, have emerged in Indiana.

For those of us who are determined to figure out what’s going on in our city and state, there are  reliable, specialized sources we can consult. What we don’t have, however, is a “one-stop” source that doesn’t just give us the news we are looking for, but the answers to  questions it wouldn’t occur to us to ask–and an explanation of why we should care.

What we also don’t have are substantial numbers of citizens who read the same headlines and stories, and as a result, occupy the same reality.

As we are seeing with the Big Lie, it’s one thing to argue about what a particular fact means; it’s another matter altogether to argue about a “fact” you’ve invented. The first argument strengthens democracy; the second one justifies democracy’s abandonment.

 

 

 

The End Won’t Be Televised…Or Reported

In January, the New Yorker ran an article focusing on one of the (many) issues that keep me awake at night–the disappearance of local news media.The title was: “What Happens When the News is Gone?”

I’ve shared the statistics before, and they’re grim–and getting grimmer. Last Tuesday, Axios  reported 155 layoffs at Vice, 80 at Quartz, 90 at the Economist, and 100 at Condé Nast , with furloughs at others. And that’s just at national publications, which continue to be comparatively healthy.

Cities and towns, however, continue to bleed the sources of information that are absolutely essential to local self-governance and the sense of community. The linked article begins with an anecdote that is all too telling: at a public meeting in the small town of Pollocksville, North Carolina, the subject was a proposed flood-damage ordinance. The mayor asked if anyone in the audience would like to comment on it.

Alice Strayhorn, a hairdresser in her late sixties who has lived in Pollocksville most of her adult life, raised her hand. “This flood-damage-prevention order,” she said. “How are we supposed to know about that? You can’t make a comment on something you don’t know about.”

Pollocksville’s newspaper was one of the estimated 25% of newspapers America has lost in the past few years, so the mayor had posted a notice in the New Bern Sun Journal, based in a neighboring county. Few people in Pollocksville read it. Surrounding counties with newspapers that do continue to publish–there are three around Pollocksville–are what the article called “ghost papers,” owned by the Gannett Company. Gannett (which also publishes what is left of the Indianapolis Star) controls more than two hundred publications nationwide.

The remainder of the New Yorker article focused upon the consequences of that news desert in Pollocksville, and the various attitudes about that lack of journalism expressed by the locals. (The mayor wasn’t exactly a fan of what we call “investigative journalism,” and tended to dismiss his constituents’ complaints about the difficulty of finding out what local government was doing.)

It would be difficult to overstate the effects of the last quarter-century’s dramatic changes to the way Americans get their information. The ability to occupy “filter bubbles” in which we consume only news that feeds our pre-existing prejudices–and the corresponding lack of trust in outlets reporting things we don’t want to know or believe–is only the most obvious of those consequences. The current media environment increases political polarization, exacerbates class and regional conflicts, and makes negotiation and compromise–essential for workable governance–incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

Those consequences are broadly recognized.

Less well understood is the way that the absence of common sources of information have fractured local communities and eroded the ability of city and town governments to function properly.

The problem isn’t the lack of information, exactly–it’s the fragmented nature of the sources of that information. Bubbles aren’t just an online phenomenon.

In Indianapolis, people who want to know what’s happening in education go to Chalkbeat; people who live downtown access the Urban Times; African-Americans subscribe to the Recorder; businesspeople and professionals read the Indianapolis Business Journal. There are several other specialized sources–papers for various neighborhoods and ethnic groups, websites devoted to the arts, etc. A great deal of information is available–to interested parties willing and able to seek it out.

The effect of this fragmentation– on politics, on government’s ability to communicate effectively with constituents, to any sense of community– is anything but positive.

As I have brooded about this, I’ve come up with an analogy: imagine that you live in a city with roughly equal numbers of citizens speaking fifty different languages, where each language group communicates primarily, if not exclusively, with others in that group, and where a third of the population doesn’t speak at all.

How do you communicate across those barriers? How do you connect to the others with whom you share an urban space?

Even in its heyday, The Indianapolis Star was hardly a symbol of great journalism; if we’re honest, we have to admit it was never a particularly good newspaper. It was, however, far, far better than it is under Gannett (it actually had reporters)–and the mere fact that it provided a common source of information to a significant proportion of the population was incredibly important–more important than most of us understood.

We once occupied a common information environment. Now, we don’t.

We were, as Mayor Bill Hudnut used to say, “citizens of no mean city.” Now, we just occupy adjacent real estate.