I’ll never forget the day in the late 1990s that I first noticed the handwriting on the wall for the long, demoralizing demise of local newspapers that would begin to rush toward oblivion at a breakneck pace in the new millennium.
It was an unexpected staff meeting called by the publisher of the medium-sized Midwestern daily I then worked for. He gathered us to announce some significant and painful layoffs of editors, reporters and support employees as the remote company that owned us sought to tighten our belts to preserve as much as possible their bottom line.
But the publisher, a very businesslike fellow, said the company remained committed to maintaining the same level of extensive local news coverage that made us popular with subscribers to begin with. I recall one of the veteran reporters asking how the Powers That Be expected us to deeply cover critical stories over our broad region with only a fraction of staff remaining? I’ll never forget his answer:
“Why can’t you just call people on the phone more?”
We editors and reporters didn’t actually look at each other in utter disbelief, but we were sure thinking it. The phone?! Well, of course, it’s a tool of the news biz, but you can’t cover city council meetings, natural disasters, the Legislature and the local American Legion baseball team’s games and the like on the phone. Truth is always truer live. Eyewitness always more accurate than secondhand.
More with less
But there it was, a non-journalist, profit-oriented bean counter riffing on how our rigorous craft could be made more efficient. Meaning done cheaper. More with less.
Clearly, he had little idea of or allegiance to what was required to keep the public informed. The new die for the future of newspapers was being cast by money, not the people’s right to know.
In the meantime, few of us in the final decade of the second millennium had much noticed (if at all) the momentous sea change that was swelling just out of sight not only in our industry but in the culture.
Although we didn’t sense its import at first, around the time of the ominous staff meeting some of us reporters and copy editors had learned of two newfangled technological wonders —the “Internet” (a.k.a. the “information superhighway”) and the “World Wide Web,” its supposedly more “user friendly” offspring. Several of us took an introductory class on these mysterious modernities at the local technical college, sensing they might one day revolutionize the news business.
We had no clue then how they would ultimately hollow-out our industry now. A disturbingly long list of defunct American newspapers is shown here.
The ‘information superhighway’
As the soon-synonymous “Net” and “Web” literally exploded upon American and then world consciousness (along with cable TV), the universe of places commerce could advertise expanded in a kind of Big Bang. That meant newspapers, previously through which most Americans received their shared news, enjoyed smaller and smaller pieces of the overall ad-revenue pie as years unfolded in the new, fast-expanding high-tech ether.
And as newspapers tightened their belts, staffs were trimmed closer and closer and closer to the bone. Then newspapers started closing their doors, frequently even icons of American journalism such as Denver, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain News, the New York Sun, Ohio’s Cincinnati Post and Washington state’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The closings afflicted newspapers large and small, as their ad revenues dried up when advertisers increasingly flocked to cable and online media to hawk their wares and services.
Which brings us to today. One of the most damaging effects of this newspaper-industry cratering is that most people in cities and communities are no longer necessarily getting their diet of news and opinion, as they once were, largely from shared sources like their local newspapers and a handful of national network TV news shows such as the CBS Evening News. The federal Fairness Doctrine, since abandoned, nudged newspapers and news broadcasters toward balanced, bipartisan coverage that fairly informed the public of major events and issues and their nuances.
But today, even though newspapers still exist in a decimated field, most people consume news and views from a smorgasbord of media outlets that cater to specific slices of American culture, largely cleaving between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. Many of these outlets, such as Fox News, Breitbart, Mother Jones and others, are highly partisan, and some — Fox is a leader — are tantamount to state organs for the Trump administration.
News silosThe net result is that people increasingly find themselves marooned in information silos that serve as echo chambers, continuously just reinforcing ideas and opinions they already embrace. With little contrary information to process, we become less and less able to fairly analyze and interpret the complexities, the telling nuances of important controversies facing the nation.
We thus trend sharply toward biased rather than open-minded thinking.
And we elect historically divisive and unfit figures like Donald Trump to lead us.
An excellent article by media columnist Margaret Sullivan in Monday’s Washington Post titled “The local-news crisis is destroying what a divided America desperately needs: Common ground” describes what “the halving of America’s daily newsrooms” has wrought. Sullivan writes:
“A Pew Research study showed that between 2008 and last year, employment in newspaper newsrooms declined by an astonishing 45 percent. (And papers were already well down from their newsroom peak in the early 1990s, when their revenue lifeblood — print advertising — was still pumping strong.)”
What does this mean to the average American? Sullivan writes:
“The dire numbers play out in ugly ways: Public officials aren’t held accountable, town budgets go unscrutinized, experienced journalists are working at Walmart, or not at all, instead of plying their much-needed trade in their communities. One problem with losing local coverage is that we never know what we don’t know. Corruption can flourish, taxes can rise, public officials can indulge their worst impulses.”
Welcome to the present, where scandals infect our government, massive disingenuous tax cuts for the uber-wealthy translate as the equivalent of tax hikes for the rest of us, and nothing so far has effectively held elected officials accountable for their ethical and legal transgressions.
In fact, cozily ensconced in our rarified bubbles, many of us are either unaware the any transgressions have occurred or have been convinced by relentless partisan propaganda that the opposition is making it all up. Fake news, you know. Alternative facts. Witch hunts.
“In our terribly divided nation, we need the local newspaper to give us common information — an agreed-upon set of facts to argue about,” Sullivan writes.
Yet, suddenly, facts are considered almost quaint artifacts in this “post-truth” (whatever that is) environment. Sullivan says the most reasonable people she talked to were the dinosaurs who still regularly read local newspapers and supplement local news on TV.
“By contrast, those residents who got news only from Facebook or from cable news were deep in their own echo chambers and couldn’t seem to hear anything else,” she wrote.
By the look of things, this silo-ization will only get worse.
A silver lining?
Still there’s a sliver of hope. A 2015 survey indicated that the largest and smallest American papers “seemed to have some immunity” from the hollowing-out of the broader industry, while regional newspapers were reeling. Wrote Sullivan:
“Tiny papers have little competition, an enduring connection with their towns, and thus still are able to attract advertising and reader loyalty. The largest of the papers — including the New York Times and The Washington Post — are finding new ways to support themselves with a combination of digital ad dollars and subscriptions, among other revenue sources.”
So, think of continuing to support your local small daily, as I do in my town of 15,000, and try to do the same for at least one still-surviving, general-circulation regional or national paper.
It will make you more broadly informed and, thus, a more knowledgeable, reasonable citizen.
It may also help save the country from creeping authoritarianism that is clearly only good for authoritarians, not the rest of us.
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