Tag Archives: local newspapers

The Journalism We Need

Yesterday”s post was about the conundrum posed by social media sites. But social media isn’t journalism–and even when it focuses on news items, it is no substitute for journalism.

The First Amendment protects freedom of the press for obvious reasons. When citizens are uninformed about their government, they are unable to ensure that it is acting appropriately, meeting its responsibilities. They are unable to cast informed votes.

The Internet and social media have dramatically changed the way in which citizens get their information, and we are still struggling to come to terms with the avalanche of news, spin, propaganda and conspiracy theories that populate today’s media. The ability to “choose one’s news”—to indulge our very human confirmation bias—has had an enormous (and I would argue negative) effect upon American governance.

An article from Resilience–an aggregator website–is instructive.The author was bemoaning, as so many of us do, the disappearance of the “journalism of verification.”

Our modern culture tells us that we have more information today than anyone in history, because of the internet – but that assumes that data that could theoretically appear on a screen has the same value as words read from paper. In truth, few web sites will cover the library board meeting or the public works department, and if they do they are likely to be a blog by a single unpaid individual. Yet these ordinary entities shape our children’s minds and our present health, and as such are infinitely more important than any celebrity gossip — possibly more important than presidential campaigns.

Even if a blogger were to cover the library board or water board, no editors would exist to review the material for quality or readability, and the writer would be under no social, financial or legal pressure to be accurate or professional, or to publish consistently, or to pass on their duties to another once they resign.

One of the most daunting challenges of contemporary governance–really, of contemporary life–is the pervasiveness of distrust. Americans no longer know who or what to believe, are no longer able to separate fact from opinion, and no longer feel confident that they can know the agendas and evaluate the performance of their social and political institutions.

We live in an era when spin has become propaganda, and reputable sources of information  compete with “click bait” designed to appeal to pre-existing prejudices. Partisans of all sorts play on well-known human frailties like confirmation bias. The result is that Americans increasingly occupy different realities, making communication–let alone rational problem-solving, negotiation and compromise–virtually impossible.

The problem is most acute at the local level.

What we lose when we lose newspapers that practiced the journalism of verification is our ability to engage in responsible self-government. Civic engagement and especially local governance suffer when local media fails to adequately cover government, and there is emerging research that bears that out. Studies of cities that have lost their newspapers confirm that the loss is followed by diminished civic and political activity. It also leads to higher costs of borrowing, because those who purchase the bonds issued by a city with no news coverage factor in the greater risk of malfeasance or incompetence when there is no “watchdog” around.

Those studies of places that have entirely lost their newspapers are now being supplemented by research into the consequences of the sort of situation we have here in Indianapolis. It’s a situation that is increasingly common–cities where a newspaper continues to publish, but no longer has sufficient staff to cover the affairs of government. A study from earlier this year, titled “Political Consequences of the Endangered Local Watchdog: Newspaper Decline and Mayoral Elections in the United States,” has sobering conclusions.

Emerging data shows that cities served by newspapers with relatively sharp declines in newsroom staffing have significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races, as well as lower voter turnout. Newspaper closures have been linked to increased partisanship–presumably because the remaining sources of local information tend to be from partisan sources and Facebook/Twitter “bubbles,” while national media focuses on America’s political polarization.

Newsrooms around the country have dramatically reduced their editorial staffs, and typically, higher-paid reporters with the most institutional memory have been the first to go.

When I taught my class in Media and Public Affairs five or six years ago, I used a textbook titled “Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?” Those lights are pretty dim right now–and as the Washington Post banner puts it– democracy dies in darkness.

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…

 

When Local Newspapers Fail

Last weekend, I was doing some research in preparation for my upcoming Media and Public Policy classes, when we would explore the role played by local newspapers in local elections.

The discussion in my class revolved around the upcoming elections in Indianapolis, where citizens will vote for the Mayor and members of the City-County Council. It has been my strong impression that the Indianapolis Star–the sole (barely) surviving daily newspaper–has given short shrift to the campaigns, and I confirmed that impression by scrolling through the archives.

My admittedly cursory review of the coverage of the last year or so also reinforced the extent to which the paper has neglected coverage of the operations of local government.  It isn’t just the electoral “horse races,” which no longer command the column inches they once did; there is virtually no information about the public policies being pursued by the Council or the administration; no coverage of local school board activities–not even articles about the occasional heated zoning battles and fights over sign ordinances that work their way up to the Metropolitan Plan Commission.

Between the annoying and intrusive advertisements that now clutter the local news section, and the even more annoying pop-up ads in its electronic version, the Star tells its declining number of subscribers  about sports, concerts and new bar and restaurant openings –and not much else.

I firmly believe that civic engagement and local governance suffer when local media fails to adequately cover government, and there is emerging research that bears that out.

I’ve previously mentioned studies of cities that have lost their newspapers; that loss has been followed by diminished civic and political activity, and higher costs of borrowing (those who purchase the bonds issued by a city with no news coverage factor in the greater risk of malfeasance or incompetence when there is no “watchdog” around.)

Those studies of places that have entirely lost their newspapers are now being supplemented by research into the consequences of the sort of situation we have here in Indianapolis. It’s a situation that is increasingly common–cities where a newspaper continues to publish, but no longer has sufficient staff to cover the affairs of government. A study from earlier this year, titled “Political Consequences of the Endangered Local Watchdog: Newspaper Decline and Mayoral Elections in the United States,” has sobering conclusions.

The article argues that “the loss of professional expertise in coverage of local government has negative consequences for the quality of city politics because citizens become less informed about local policies and elections.”

The data show that cities served by newspapers with relatively sharp declines in newsroom staffing had, on average, significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races. We also find suggestive evidence that lower staffing levels are associated with lower voter turnout.

Another recent study found newspaper closures linked to increased partisanship–presumably because the remaining sources of local information tend to be from partisan sources and Facebook/Twitter “bubbles,” while national media focuses on America’s political polarization.

Newsrooms around the country have dramatically reduced their editorial staffs, and typically, higher-paid reporters with the most institutional memory have been the first to go. That has certainly been the case here.

When I taught this class four or five years ago, I used a textbook titled “Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?”

The lights are pretty dim right now–and as the Washington Post banner puts it– democracy dies in darkness.